Parashat Naso

Pure And Unadulterated, Sotah And Rabbi Meir

A midrash on the Sotah ritual emphasizes the lengths to which we go to bring peace between spouses.

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Bamidbar Rabba Parshat Naso

R. Zechariah, the son-in-law of R. Levi, related the following incident: R. Meir used to hold regular classes in the Synagogue every Sabbath eve. A certain woman was present who regularly came to listen to him.

On one occasion he went later than expected. When she arrived home she found the lights out. Her husband asked her: "Where have you been?" She told him: "I have been listening to a class." He replied: "You may not enter this house until you go and spit in the face of the teacher."

Through the Holy Spirit Rabb Meir witnessed this. He then pretended to be suffering from pain in the eyes, and announced: "If there is any woman skilled in whispering charms for the eyes, let her come and whisper." Her neighbors related this to her and said: "This is a chance for you to return home. Pretend you are a charmer and spit into his eyes [which was part of the charm]." When she came to him he said to her: "Are you skilled in whispering charms for the eyes?"

Daunted by his presence she answered in the negative. He said to her: "Nevermind, spit into this one seven times and it will get better." After she had spat he said to her: "Go and tell your husband: 'You bade me do it only once; see, I have spat seven times!’"

His disciples said to him: "Master! are the words of the Torah to be treated with such contempt as this? Had you told us, would we not have sent and fetched the man and given him a flogging on the bench and forced him to become reconciled with his wife?"

Said he to them: "The dignity of Meir ought not to be greater than that of his Divine Master." If in the case of [the Sotah ritual where] the Holy Name which is so sacred, the Torah orders that it is to be blotted out in water, in order to bring about peace between a man and his wife, what does the dignity of Meir matter?

Your Midrash Navigator

1. According to Rebbe Meir, what is the purpose of the Sotah ritual?
2. Does Rebbe Meir feel responsible for creating the problem between the man and his wife, or is he just making peace?
3 .Would you have rather seen the students' solution implemented?
4. How does Rebbe Meir view the fact that the Name YHWH is blotted out in water?

A Word

The story of Rebbe Meir and his intervention raises many issues. It, in many ways, is a troubling story, just like the Sotah ritual is troubling. What strikes me as most powerful is not how Rebbe Meir "solves" the problem, but the fact that he accepts responsibility for what happened. He spoke longer than he was expected to, and he witnessed how that innocent discrepancy created discord at home. By the time she got home the lights had gone out in the house. It was very late.

Instead of castigating the husband for being calloused and unreasonable as he certainly was, Meir only focuses on how he can restore the relationship to what it was before this happened. He knows he can't fix the dynamics between this man and his wife, he can only accept responsibility for making them worse. For this, he is willing to humiliate himself and the dignity of the Torah for a fragile piece of peace.

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Rabbi Peter Tarlow

Rabbi Peter Tarlow is the Hillel Director at Texas A&M University.