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June 9, 2022 10:23 am
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The Torah and the Power of Reconciliation

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

Reading from a Torah scroll in accordance with Sephardi tradition. Photo: Sagie Maoz via Wikimedia Commons.

This week’s Torah reading consists of seemingly disparate themes — but really, they all connect in a parable of alienation and reconciliation.

Everything was prepared for the invasion of the Land of Israel. The tribes were counted. The leadership primed, the flags raised; they were ready to march. They looked impressive, but really beneath the surface, things were unstable. They panicked and were forced back into the desert for another generation. They had betrayed God.

The Torah then brings in a law about betrayal that deals with individual issues, rather than national ones. The ordeal of the Sotah was not just about suspicion and how to deal with it. Although it is framed in terms of a wife betraying a husband, some commentators saw it as a metaphor for any betrayal — a climate of mistrust that undermines a relationship and the stability of society.

The rabbis of the Talmud set out to recast the issue as one designed to repair rather than punish. They saw this as an example of where communication between husband and spouse had broken down. They were in a state of pain, as much as conflict.

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Instead of resorting to divorce or rupture, the Torah created a ceremony in which a suspect wife came before the priest and had to drink water into which God’s written name was dissolved to encourage a confession. It was an attempt at reconciliation. This was the only example of God’s name being intentionally obliterated in the interests of peace, in bringing a husband and wife back together. And if it were clear that nothing untoward had happened, the couple would be reconciled, they would have children, and live happily ever after. Although the initial law only imposed the ordeal on a woman, they said it was an ordeal for the husband too. And in the end, they suspended it entirely. No one was blameless.

The Bible is a record of human shortcomings that can be overcome despite rupture and disappointment. That’s human nature. We betray and become alienated. But we can — if we want to — find a way back into a creative, positive, and loving relationship. This is why this episode ends with the blessings the priests give to Israel from God. “May God should bless us and protect us, may the Divine presence should be within us and be benevolent, and may God forgive us and bless us with peace.”

And talking of peace, Shabbat Shalom.

The author is a writer and rabbi, currently living in New York.

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