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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Naso/Shavuos 5774 "Really Convinced"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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A man was driving down an old country road one afternoon, when his car suddenly sputtered and stopped. He jumped out of his car, and flipped up the hood to survey the situation. He surmised that if he only had a screwdriver he would be able to fix everything and be back on the road in mere minutes.

The man noticed that down the road there was an old farmhouse. The man was overjoyed and he began walking toward the house. The man reassured himself that the farmer was sure to have a screwdriver and would surely not mind lending it to him for a few minutes.

As the man walked down the street he thought to himself that the farmer, noticing his desperation, may decide not to be altruistic. “Perhaps he’ll charge me to use his screwdriver. That would not be very nice, but what can you do?” he reasoned, “I guess at the moment the screwdriver is worth a couple of dollars to me.” Soon the man was walking past the gate in front of the little old house. He continued thinking, “What if the farmer decides to charge me twenty-five dollars for the screwdriver? How disgusting! But, I guess I would cough up the money. After all, what choice do I have out in this forbidden town?”

Walking up the little path, the man agitatedly thought that perhaps the farmer will charge him fifty dollars for the usage of his screwdriver. “Can you imagine the audacity? To take such advantage of a weary traveler! How can anyone be so heartless?” “Still,” the man thought, “what is my other option?”

As the man walked up the steps and began knocking at the font door he continued thinking, “What if the farmer doesn’t stop at fifty? What if he decides to charge me a hundred dollars? A HUNDRED DOLLARS FOR A LOUSY SCREWDRIVER?! THIS GUY MUST BE COMPLETELY NUTS!”

Suddenly, the door swung open and the farmer smiling jovially and gregariously said, “Howdy”. But before he could say anything more the man slammed the door back in the stunned famer’s face and shouted, “YOU CAN JUST KEEP YOUR DUMB SCREWDRIVER YOU SELFISH OLD MAN! I AINT PAYING YOU A DIME!” With that he made an about face and stormed off.

The concept and procedure of the Sotah is unusual, not only because it involved supernatural intervention, but also because it seems to defy the Torah’s normal judicial process[1]. In a Jewish court, for testimony to have credence two witnesses must testify[2]. If so, why are two witnesses not sufficient to prove the Sotah’s innocence?

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky zt’l explained that the reality is that once a husband begins to suspect his wife his trust will not be restored even if the court rules that she is innocent. Legal decisions do little to alter human emotions. In fact, even if a prophet would prophesize to the husband of his wife’s innocence the husband would remain skeptical. Despite the fact that there is an obligation for one to believe every word that a prophet says, the deep scar of even mere suspicion can only be removed when one is absolutely sure that the allegations are unfounded. Only the authentication of G-d Himself, as it were, has the capacity to assuage the anger that stems from the husband’s suspicions.

It is for this reason that G-d allowed His Ineffable Holy Name to be erased for the process of the Sotah. The point of the Sotah process was not to punish the adulterer. Au contraire! The point was to prove the blamelessness of the innocent so that she and her husband can once again live in peace and harmony and without doubts. The gemara[3] expresses this sentiment when it states: “How great is peace between husband and wife, for the Torah says that the Name of the Holy One, blessed is He, which is written with holiness, should be erased in the waters.”

Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski relates that he was once reading a letter that someone sent to him. In the letter the writer described the deep pain of being the subject of spousal abuse. The writer described the how controlling and emotionally abusive the spouse was. Rabbi Twerski wrote that by the time he finished reading the article he was seething at the husband and was filled with all sorts of negative thoughts about him. But when he came to the end of the letter he realized that the husband was the writer and his wife was the abuser.

Rabbi Twerski continued that he had to reread the entire letter bearing that new bit of information in mind in order to completely change his perspective and mental attitude regarding the situation and the individuals involved. It was not enough just to “take in” that new piece of information. He had to reread the letter so that he could undo all of the negative emotional feelings that had been triggered. Undoing emotionally rooted ideas and feelings is a challenge.

Human beings are primarily driven by our emotions. The ideas that we form in our heads, rational or not, create the reality we experience. At times we find ourselves arguing with someone who just “doesn’t seem to get it”. Our rationale and logic can be crystal clear and yet the other person obdurately refuses to acknowledge it. The reason is because the debate has entered the realm of emotions. Once an argument becomes emotional logic is no longer adequate to prove one’s point. When it becomes an emotional matter, those emotional needs (e.g. pride, empathy, validation, ego, etc.) must be met before logic can be used to settle the issue.

The peril of the Sotah is that the husband’s suspicious are deeply emotional. A good marriage is built on trust. When that trust has been breached the pain is very deep. G-d Himself must intervene before the damage can be rectified!

If the Sotah is the symbol of faithlessness and fickleness than Klal Yisroel’s commitment to Torah is the symbol of faith and conviction. When G-d offered Klal Yisroel the Torah, the nation exuberantly proclaimed in unison, “we will do and we will hear”. It was far greater than an intellectual or logical declaration. It was an emotional and passionate avowal and affirmation of a faith that would transcend time, place, and all challenges.

The gemara[4] relates that a Sadducee once witnessed the great Amoraic sage Rava immersed in his learning. Rava was so engrossed in his study of Torah that he was completely oblivious to the fact that he was sitting on the fingers of his hand and causing blood to rush to the surface. "Impulsive people that you are!" the Sadducee mocked. "You were impulsive when you put your mouths before your ears[5], and you are impulsive now in your self neglect. You first should have determined whether the Torah you were being offered did not demand more of you than is possible and only then accept it."

Rava well understood that the heathen was interpreting his seemingly superhuman concentration on Torah study as evidence that the Jewish People had ‘bitten off more than they could chew’ when they accepted the Torah.

Rava responded by explaining the difference between the non-Jewish attitude of suspicion toward G-d’s offer of the Torah and the Jewish attitude of total trust.

Rashi explains the reply of Rava with inimitable eloquence: "We related to G-d with total trust in the manner of those who act out of love. We relied upon Him that He would not impose upon us any responsibility which we were not capable of fulfilling."

Rava essentially answered that Klal Yisroel was not guilty of being impulsive. They rather had complete confidence that when the Creator offers a challenge He also provides the ability to meet it. It may be true that from a rational vantage point the acceptance of the Torah seemed illogical. However, the Jews were emotionally connected and therefore no impediment could hinder them from accepting its yoke with love.

The holiday of Shavuos marks the anniversary of our initial willingness and eagerness to accept the Torah. Perhaps the most important aspect of Shavuos is our demonstration that we too are ready to accept the Torah with emotional excitement and love, despite the challenges that such a commitment entails. During the over 3320 years since our ancestors stood at Sinai, rivers of our blood have ‘spurted out from our fingers’. Yet we remain immersed in the study of Torah and living by its dictates, the jeers and mockery of our enemies not withstanding.

The gemara[6] relates that although there is a Tannaic dispute about how one should conduct himself during Jewish holidays, everyone agrees that on the holiday of Shavuos - the holiday when we received the Torah - one must eat lavish meals, and rejoice in an external ostentatious manner. It is not sufficient for one to accept the Torah out of coercion or even rote; it must be done with excitement and joy. One must demonstrate “tzufreedinkeit”, i.e. extreme happiness, that he was granted the opportunity to bear the yoke of the Torah and to be a member of the Chosen people with a unique mission. Shavuos is the celebration of our having been chosen for that special mission. “You have chosen us from among all of the nations, you have loved us, and You wanted us.”

“How great is peace”

“We will do and we will hear”

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[1] The Torah’s discussion of the Sotah (wayward wife) is among the most fascinating passages in the Torah. The passage deals with a married woman who behaved in an indecorous manner, giving her husband good reason to suspect her of engaging in an adulterous relationship. The Torah delineates a miraculous process which proves that she either did sin which would result in both her and her illicit partner dying a vile death, or conclusively show that she was faithful, thereby restoring the trust and love in her marriage. If she was unfaithful, the mere fear of being forced to drink the Sotah waters would hopefully be sufficient to induce her confession. If she did confess the marriage would end in divorce but there would be no further punishment because there was no judicial evidence of her guilt.

The Sotah was brought to the Temple and forced to drink the ‘Sotah-waters’. The Torah passages that discuss the Sotah were written on special paper and dipped into the Sotah-waters. All of the writing on the document - including the Holy Name of G-d - would be erased when it was submerged in the water. If the woman was guilty she would die in a grotesque fashion.

[2] In fact, the testimony of two witnesses is tantamount to having testimony written and sealed on an official document.

[3] Chullin 141a

[4] Shabbos 88a

[5] i.e. when you declared at Sinai "we shall do" before you said "we shall hear"

[6] Pesachim 68a

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