Naso Drash

by Daniel Koster

When I was growing up in the shtetl of Anatevka, Florida, the Rabbi used to go everywhere by bike. One day he came to me and cried, “Daniel, my bike has been stolen!” I said, “but Rabbi, you go everywhere by bike,” and he said “we know that, you just told us. I’ve got to find out who took it.” And I said “Rabbi, that’s easy. This week is Shavuot, when you will read the Ten Commandments, pause at the commandment thou shalt not steal and look at the people, and whoever acts all nervous and uncomfortable, that’s your thief.” He said, I understand, that’s what I’ll do. So come Shavuot he’s reading the commandments, and when he gets to the one about stealing, he breezes right through. So after I told him, you didn’t understand, you were supposed to pause after thou shalt not steal. And he said, “I understood fine. See, I was reading the commandments, and when I got to the commandment thou shalt not commit adultery, wouldn’t you know, I remembered where I left my bike.”

Speaking of bikes, this week’s parsha deals with the transportation of the materials to build the tabernacle. Moses is charged with taking a census of the Levites to ensure there are enough people to carry the poles, sockets, and dolphins skins. Even in the desert, the practice of our faith involved a lot of people. Judaism is not about sitting alone under the Bodhi Tree, nor walking on the beach and leaving one set of footprints. If you embark on this journey, you’re going to need a minyan, and your whole family, and a board of directors apparently. The requirement for enough people has been build in from the beginning. If God didn’t want us to practice as a big community, he would have ordered a smaller tabernacle. And while carrying poles and dolphin skins may sound like menial labor, these men had to build a walled compound with an altar and holy tent on a foundation of sand to exact divine specifications, using only the tools they could carry. The Kohathites, Gershonites, and Merarites had to be strong and smart, and organized enough to accomplish this construction project every time the Israelites stopped. From then, through the Temple times, to the age of synagogues today, our practice has depended on the contributions of motivated, educated, and dependable people. And the world is full of obstacles to raising a person with these needed characteristics. As a lot of us know firsthand, everything our parents don’t do to set us up for success is work we have to do ourselves before we can contribute much to the community. All that is to say that for thousands of years, everything that matters to us as Jews has depended on parents doing a good job raising their children. After Moses assigns responsibility for building the Tabernacle, he receives instructions on the ritual of the Sotah. This is where a man who suspects his wife of adultery brings her to the tabernacle, where the priest will write down curses and scrape the ink into a mix of dust and water. If she is guilty, this water of bitterness will cause her thigh will sag and she will become infertile. If there’s one thing women hate, it’s saggy thighs. They’re always saying, does this dress make my thighs look saggy, and, did you see Becky’s thighs? She should be nominated for the SAG award. If she is not guilty, she will not be harmed, and the husband will be free of guilt.

Speaking of Bitterness, everyone is quick to condemn this unconventional ritual, saying it shows how the men held all the power in that time, and I don’t suppose the women could give their husbands cursed water if they were suspected of hanging around the well a little too much. God must be a sexist, because he gave all the power to the men and left women to suffer this humiliation, whether or not they did anything wrong. Therefore are free to dismiss this whole section and figure out our own way to deal with the problem… Or… maybe God is going somewhere with this. While it’s true that this ritual does give a man the power to make his wife into “the wife who had to drink the water of bitterness,” he also makes himself “the husband who made his wife drink the water of bitterness,” and it’s not obvious that’s any better. Nobody wants to be in this situation, so my estimation is that for everyone who underwent the ritual, there were many more who did whatever it took to avoid it.

The reality is that this is more than a story about how people back then dealt with their suspicions. This is a description of what will happen to you if the trust breaks down. In the desert god made the water sweet; if you and your spouse lose each other’s trust, the water in your home will become bitter. Your mind will run away, seeing everything your partner does as evidence of their vileness, proof that you should have never sacrificed your freedom for such a liar. If the partners don’t trust each other enough to work it out, small suspicion can grow into a spiky wall of spears between them. And before you assure yourself that you or your spouse would never commit adultery, remember that there are many ways to betray your partner. You can spend all the money, or neglect your part in maintaining the house, or spread bitter rumors in your community. If both parties are not carrying their tentpoles and carefully laying their dolphin skins, they are in danger of descending so deep into hell that dragging the problem before the priest seems like a good idea. By the way, this is not about me standing in judgement of anyone else, but we don’t need to get into the reasons for that right now. When bitterness flows in a house, everyone drinks it, especially the children. And when children grow up in bitterness, they do not leave the house ready to serve the community. When enough children are not ready to serve their community, the tabernacle gets built wrong, and the desert winds topples the holy of holies. That is why thou shalt not commit adultery belongs in the Ten Commandments. Just like murder and steading and false witness, adultery is enough to ruin everything.

As for how to maintain a good marriage at least long enough to raise some good kids, I don’t have any answers for you. A lot of couples in this community seem to be doing great, so I’m sure to listen for any hints they can offer. I also hold onto the faith that the answers are woven into the Torah, even the strange parts. I have drunk enough bitter water in my time, and I believe God can make any concoction sweet again, as long as I know where my bicycle is.

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