Learning From Our Mistakes
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In the Torah portion of Naso, we learn of the treatment of the Sotah, a wife who is suspected of adultery. Because her guilt cannot be proven by witnesses, but her husband suspects her and cannot forgive her without proof of her innocence, a miraculous test determines her innocence or guilt.
The woman is forced to drink "bitter waters that cause curse (Numbers 5:18)," formed of water, the dirt of the sanctuary, and the ink of an erased curse. If the woman is guilty, she will die; if she is innocent, she will be cleared of all suspicion.
Immediately following the ordeal of the Sotah, the Torah addresses the vow of the Nazir: "A man or woman who sets him/herself apart by making a nazirite vow to abstain for the sake of God, from new or aged wine shall he abstain (Numbers 6:2-3)." This is a voluntary vow that any individual can take upon him or herself, to avoid wine or any grape products for a fixed period of time.
What Comes First?
Why does the vow of the Nazir follow the ordeal of the Sotah? Rashi comments that: "whoever sees an adulteress in her disgrace should vow to abstain from wine, for it leads to adultery." One should learn from the experience of seeing another person (the suspected adulteress) stumbling, says Rashi, by committing oneself not to make the same mistakes (through the vows of the Nazirite)--even beyond the boundaries of our usual commandments.
In contrast to the Torah's ordering, the Talmud discusses the Nazir before the Sotah. Why does the Talmud reverse the order?
The Mei Shiloach, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Ishbitz, explains this with an interesting exploration of mistakes. The usual way, he writes, is that "a person can only uphold the teachings of the Torah when he has stumbled in them," i.e, a person makes mistakes and then learns from them. As mentioned above, this is why the Torah order is first Sotah (mistake), and then Nazir (correction).
However, continues the Mei Shiloach, the sages of the Talmud embraced "Torat Imecha" (the Torah of our mothers). These two words are cited from Proverbs 1:8: "Hearken, my son, to the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the instruction of your mother [Torat Imecha]." According to Rashi, "the discipline of your father" refers to the written and oral Torah, whereas "the instruction of your mother [Imecha]" are the safeguards for the Torah. This refers to the additional edicts of the rabbis, safeguards for the Torah which go beyond the "letter of the law" and are meant to keep us from stumbling.
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