May 29, 2014

Among other mitzvot mentioned in Parshat Naso, we have the laws of the Sotah, the woman whose husband suspects her of adultery.

We find the following strange verse and Rashi’s comment.

Numbers 5:31: “And the man is cleansed of iniquity, but that woman shall bear her iniquity.”

RASHI: And the man is cleansed of iniquity – : If the waters affected her (killed her), let him not be tormented, saying ‘I was responsible for her death.’ He is cleansed from punishment.
Another interpretation: After he caused her to drink (and she does not die, i.e. she is not guilty), she is permitted to be with her husband. And he is cleansed of sin, because the Sotah (before she drinks) is forbidden to be with her husband (but is now permitted).

Rashi has given us two interpretations. They differ in the translation of one Hebrew word. The word “avon” (“iniquity”) is given two different meanings in Rashi’s two comments. The first comment translates the word as “punishment” when Rashi says “he is cleansed from punishment.” In his second comment this word means “sin” as he says: “he is cleansed of sin.”

Why does Rashi comment at all? What about our verse is bothering him ? And why two possible translations of the same word.

This whole section of Sotah speaks of a woman suspected of committing adultery. She is either guilty or innocent. Why should the Torah speak of the man being guiltless? Of course he is guiltless, he hasn’t done anything! Rashi’s comment deals with this question.

Rashi informs us that the husband might possibly consider himself guilty, since, if his wife had committed adultery and he made her drink the Bitter Waters, she would die a painful, shameful, death. So, the verse tells us “he is cleansed of punishment.” While he may have been instrumental in her death, he won’t be punished, since it was the woman who committed adultery and she was rightfully punished.

The second interpretation tells us that, assuming the woman did not commit adultery and was therefore unaffected by the waters, he may now have relations with his wife. The law is that before she drank and her innocence had not yet been proven, she was forbidden to her husband; but now that she drank and survived the ordeal, this is evidence that she is guiltless and she and her husband may again be together.

But Rashi’s second comment is difficult. The verse says that the woman shall bear her iniquity. If she is guilty how can her husband return to her?

The verse says “THAT woman shall bear her iniquity.” Why the need for the word “that”? It should have just said “the woman…”

It seems the Torah is implying that in a different case there might a different woman, who would “bear her iniquity.” “The woman” who passed the Bitter Water ordeal will return to her husband, but “that woman, who sinned, will bear her iniquity.”

Notice that there are two likely outcomes to the Sota ordeal: Either she is guilty and then dies, or she is innocent and lives and goes back to her husband. See how the two meanings of the word “avon” (“iniquity”) are appropriate, each in its own way, to these two outcomes. Either she dies and her husband is not to be punished for this, or she survives and returns to the status of rightful wife and thus her husband will have no sin when he is with her.

From the realization that the word “avon” can have two different meanings, either sin or punishment, we can now understand a familiar prayer.
We say the “Avinu Malkeinu” (“Our Father, our King”) prayer on Fast Days and during the Ten Days of Repentance. In this prayer there is a phrase that is puzzling. It says:
“Our Father, our King, exterminate pestilence, sword, famine, captivity, destruction and SIN from the children of Your covenant.”

The question is: What is “sin” doing in this list of unfortunate events that can befall a person? Sin is a matter that a person does to himself. The Sages say “All is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven.” How, then, can we request that God ” exterminate sin”? It is equivalent to asking God to take away our free will!

With our insight from this Rashi, we now understand that the word “avon” here means “punishment” and not “sin.” In this sense “avon” fits in perfectly with the other untoward events on the list. We beseech God to exterminate and eliminate punishment from our lives.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Meir Wise



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