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Jealousy and Suspicion

  • Jealousy and Suspicion

    Naso, Numbers 4:21−7:89
D'var Torah By: 

What can a spouse do if he or she becomes suspicious of his or her mate? On TV dramas, people hire a private eye, but it isn't so simple in real life.

Numbers 5:11-31 in Parashat Naso includes a passage about a very strange ceremony that attempts to deal with the issue of jealousy. If a woman's husband becomes suspicious of his wife's fidelity and is consumed by jealousy, he may bring her to the priest, at which time she is made to drink a special potion. If she becomes ill, she is guilty: His suspicions are borne out. If she does not become ill, then his suspicions are unfounded. My teacher Rabbi Chanan Brichto (of blessed memory) taught that this passage was essentially designed to protect women against jealous husbands.

Imagine with me, if you will, a case in which a wise rabbi uses this teaching to create peace between a husband and wife.

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, deep in the Carpathian Mountains, there was a village of ramshackle wooden houses where, during the fierce mountain winters, snowbanks would sometimes engulf houses and the narrow, unpaved streets became impassable. It was a Jewish village where the men cut wood from the deep forest and sold it to the sawmill for lumber. One of the lumbermen was Chaim, a huge man whose jet-black beard made him look even bigger. He inspired fear in strangers, but he was a gentle man who got down on his hands and knees to give children rides on his back.

One winter Chaim's wife, Sarah, became very sick and he was afraid to leave her alone. Since Sarah's good friend was Naomi who lived three streets away, Chaim asked Naomi to take care of her while he worked in the forest. When Chaim returned that night, Sarah seemed to be feeling a little better, having been cheered by Naomi's good humor and tender care. Because it had started snowing earlier that day and the snow was getting deeper and deeper, Chaim offered to walk Naomi home: She was a tiny woman and he was afraid she'd fall into a snowdrift. As they were walking, the snow came up to Naomi's waist and she kept falling, so Chaim offered to pick her up and carry her. She agreed, and in a few big strides he delivered her to her door, knocked, and when Naomi's husband, Berel, opened it, set Naomi down safely inside the door.

Berel erupted in anger. "How dare you touch my wife?" he demanded. "It was bad enough that you were alone with her, but to touch her, to pick her up, how dare you? For all I know, you have slept with her." Chaim was speechless, but Naomi had a quick reply. "Don't be ridiculous, Berel," she retorted. "Chaim was very kind. He walked me home in this blizzard, and when the snow came up to my waist, I couldn't even walk. If he hadn't been with me, I'd still be out there freezing to death. You should thank him."

With that, Berel threw both of them out of the house. "You are not my wife any more," he yelled. Naomi had no choice but to go back and stay with Chaim and Sarah. The next day, Berel went to Rabbi Nachum and told him the story, saying he wanted to divorce Naomi.

The rabbi agreed that it was unusual for a man to be alone with a woman who was not his wife, and, yes, it was highly irregular for him to touch another woman, let alone pick her up and carry her. On the other hand, Naomi had done a great mitzvah and Chaim was only trying to protect her in the storm. But Berel was adamant. He insisted that the rabbi write the get, bill of divorce, immediately. Rabbi Nachum told Berel that he was just being jealous, that he couldn't imagine that someone as good and gentle as Chaim would take advantage of Naomi, and that he couldn't imagine that Naomi, who did such a great mitzvah in caring for Chaim's wife, would be unfaithful to Berel. Rabbi Nachum argued for hours with Berel, trying to talk him out of the get, but Berel was undeterred. Finally Rabbi Nachum said, "I have a way of finding out the truth. I will make a special, secret potion and ask Naomi to drink it. If she is innocent, she will remain healthy, but if she is guilty, she will become gravely ill. Berel agreed. The rabbi finally convinced Naomi to drink the potion. She did, and nothing happened. In the end, Berel apologized to her and to Chaim and begged her forgiveness for being a jealous husband.

It is unfortunate that we no longer have such a simple way of eradicating suspicion and jealousy. What we do have is what we have always had-a willingness to trust, the cultivation of honesty, and the requirement to act in a way that inspires trust. But sometimes when relationships deteriorate, there is the possibility that some wise person will intervene and help couples restore their trust in each other, just as the priests did in ancient times and as Rabbi Nachum did in our story. You might just be that person.

Applying for a Job With God
Davar Acher By: 
Josh Minkin

This week's parashah, Naso, begins with a continuation of the assignment of tasks to the Levites. As the Children of Israel wandered in the desert, they carried the holy Tabernacle with them, carefully placing each holy vessel in its carrying case. Last week, the first verses of Numbers, chapter four, discussed the jobs that were assigned to the Kohathites, the Levitical family from which Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were descended. They were responsible for carrying the sacred objects and vessels that were used by Aaron and his sons inside the sacred enclosure.

This week, we read about the jobs that belonged to the other Levitical families. The duties of the Gershonites included carrying the Tent of Meeting itself, the screen for its entrance, the hangings of the enclosure, the sacrificial altar, and all the equipment used in the courtyard of the Tabernacle. (Numbers 4:25-28) The last Levitical family, the Merarites, were responsible for the planks and boards and all the equipment used in creating the enclosure itself. (Numbers 4:31-33) We learn at the end of the portion (Numbers 7:6-8) that the Gershonites and Merarites did not have to carry this heavy equipment around with them throughout the desert wanderings but had oxcarts, which they were responsible for loading and unloading. In Numbers 4:49 we are told: "Each one was given responsibility for his service and porterage at the command of Adonai through Moses."

The job of each of the Levites was clear: Moses was commanded to "list by name the objects that are their porterage tasks." (Numbers 4:32) The transporting of the Tabernacle was holy work, vital to the Jewish people, and each family, even each person, had explicit instructions about what to do so that this terribly important and complicated task would be coordinated and accomplished. However, living in the twenty-first century, we are not as lucky as those Levites. It has been many years since Sinai. Our set of instructions is not so clear. We, too, are commanded to do holy work, but our tasks have not been "listed by name." Compared to the Levites, our job is extremely difficult.

Thus we are obliged to discover for ourselves what tasks God intends for us. Each of us must search for the holy work that has been assigned to us. To learn our jobs, we must study, but study is not enough. Study is just the first important step in defining our job description. Part of our training must also be on the job: We must learn by doing. We must lift our burdens just as the Levites did, and in performing them, discover if they are ours.

Searching for the role God wants us to play is a lifelong process, but as a beginning, I suggest following the instructions of the prophet Isaiah: "Unlock the shackles of injustice, undo the fetters of bondage, let the oppressed go free, and break every cruel chain. Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house. When you see the naked, clothe them." (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Questions for Discussion

  1. How can you fulfill the commandment "Be holy!"? (Leviticus 11:44-45)
  2. Where can you go to learn more about discovering God's job description for you?
  3. Are you willing to "apply" for a position as God's partner? How would you act?

Further Reading

  • Tell Me a Mitzvah: Little and Big Ways to Repair the World , Danny Siegel, Kar-Ben Copies, Inc., November 1995.
  • 40 Things You Can Do to Save the Jewish People , Joel Lurie Grishaver, Alef Design Group, October 1997.
Reference Materials: 

Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,043-1,075; Revised Edition, pp. 921-945;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 815-842