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.