Parashat Naso 5778
by Rabbi Daniela
From the case of Sotah to Zelophehad’s five daughters: from oppression and humiliation to justice and equality
In this week’s parashah, among other themes, appears the ordeal of the Sotah. It deals with the case of a woman who was suspected of betraying her husband. In that case, the husband had to take his wife to the Tabernacle in order that she undergo an ordeal that would establish her guilt or innocence.
Numbers 5:11–31 describes in detail the ritual, which a priest performs in the Tabernacle to determine whether a woman, whose husband suspects her of adultery, is indeed guilty. There the priest performs a series of ritual acts: he offers a “meal-offering of jealousy,” an offering of ground barley without oil or frankincense, unbinds the woman’s hair, makes her swear an oath that she had sexual relations with no man other than her husband, writes the oath in a scroll and erases it in water mixed with dust from the Tabernacle, and finally makes the woman drink the mixture.
This mixture, which the Torah calls “the bitter, curse-causing waters,” contains the oath and the curses that accompany it, and ultimately determines the woman’s fate. As the woman drinks the potion, the outcome of the trial appears on her body, confirming or refuting her husband’s suspicions: If she is guilty, the water will cause the woman to become infertile (the expressions “her thigh falls” and “her belly distends” are probably euphemisms for harm to the sexual organs), but if she is innocent, the water will do her no harm and even cause her to become fertile.
I believe this is a horrible and humiliating ritual for women. In addition, it is an unfair law because it is limited only to the case where the man suspects his wife. But what happens when the woman suspects her husband of adultery? There is no ordeal for the man!
Besides that, the text emphasizes that this situation is related to the husband’s jealousy. It is written in the Torah, “a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself—the man shall bring his wife to the priest” (B’midvar 5:14-15).
Thus, we may say that this is a case of a man who is sick from jealousy, and there are many men with this disorder! In that case, despite the fact that he is the one with the problem, he acquires the power to control his wife and bring her to this humiliating ritual—humiliating her emotionally, physically, and publicly.
The woman here is treated as a passive object: she goes through this experience in silence, not allowed to say anything. Her body is denigrated and her body must show her innocence or guilt. She is absorbed in the agency of her husband and of the priest.
The good news is that we have no accounts from biblical times about the performance of this ritual. The only existing accounts of the performing of the ritual are a few places in the Mishnah (Yoma 3:10; Eduyyot 5:6), but the Mishnah’s non-historical character does not allow us to derive solid historical accounts from it. Even if we accept that the ritual was performed, it is hard to know exactly what form it took.
Why do I bring up this law today? Because I want to point out that the Book of Bamidbar starts with this legal narrative of the case of Sotah, but it ends with a very different legal narrative related to women. At the end of the Book of Bamidbar, in parashat Pinchas, we have five sisters, Zelophead’s daughters, who claim their right to inherit their father’s land after he passed away without male heirs.
It is written in the Torah: “The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family, came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the LORD, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Bamidbar 27:1-4)
In contrast to the Sotah, the five sisters stand firmly before Moses and the leaders of the people and raise their voices to claim for their right to inherit their father’s land. The five sisters were not silent, they had the courage to make claims and to speak out. They were active agents of their decision and beliefs.
In addition, God accepted their claim, saying with praise:
“The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.” (Bamidbar 27:7)
We start the Book of Bamidbar with an unfair, humiliating, and oppressive situation for women; however, we end the book with a very positive, encouraging, and just message.
There have been countless acts of discrimination, marginalization, and oppression against women through history, but the Torah, with the story of the five sisters, shows us that there are indeed ways to reemerge, to find justice, equality, and freedom. It is a matter of finding the courage to speak out, as some in the Me-Too movement are doing in our days.
These five sisters encourage not only women, but all groups that have been oppressed, discriminated against, and denigrated. We should follow their example of standing up, raising our voices, and claiming justice and equal rights.