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The Ordeal (don't listen to me, I don't know what I'm talking about)

I want to preface this piece by saying that I have basically no experience in the subject I am about to write about, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. Matter of fact, take everything I say with a grain of salt, period. Anyway, here goes.


I have been reading Pirkei Avot, and I came across an interesting quote. Mishnah 11 has Avtalion saying the following: Sages, give heed to your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile and be banished to a place of evil waters, and the disciples who come after you drink [of them] and die, and the Name of Heaven be profaned. My copy of Pirkei Avot includes a note which says that Abtalion no doubt had in mind the scholars who went down to Alexandria in Egypt and developed there a new system of Judaism in which the commandments were symbolic and not binding. Going back to the quote itself, it was the phrase “evil waters” which I found interesting. In this case, it is referring to a dangerous teaching. Torah teachings are likened to water for a few reasons. Firstly, as is made clear in Avtalion’s quote, a teacher’s students drink in their teachings like water. Connected to that idea is the idea that Torah sustains the Jewish people, just like water sustains a human being. Torah and its continuation, teacher to student, is the most basic element of Jewish survival; it’s what makes us us and keeps us alive as a people! This metaphor makes a lot of sense when you think about the situation our forefathers were living in. They lived in the hot, ancient Middle East. Before the time of the Sages, our forefathers were desert nomads, they lived from well to well, oasis to oasis. They fully understand the power of water and the truth that water is life. When we think about wells and our nomadic, shepherding ancestors, we think of the Patriarchs in Breishit. When we think about wells and water in Bereishit, we then think about the Matriarchs. Many of the wives of the Bible were found at wells, such as Rivkah. There are many things you can read into this, but I will explore one layer/angle. Just as water was life to our ancestors, so were women. Without water there was no life, likewise, without women there is no continuation of life. Abraham sent out his servant to find a wife for his son so that the family could continue, so that more life would be created, so it’s no coincidence that the women who became Isaac’s wife was found at a well. In addition to the literal connection between water and women as both keys to life, there is a connection between the rejuvenating and reviving qualities of both. Just as, after a long, dusty day, a sip of cool water and be reviving, so too, a wife can be a reviving comfort after a long day away from home at work. But remember, where did this whole discussion start? With evil waters. Just as the Torah likens some women to reviving, life-giving water, it also warns against certain other women. Throughout the book of Proverbs, and in other places less explicitly, there are warnings against the adulterous woman. If we go back to our water metaphor, let’s link the “bad” woman to “bad” water. They look good, look refreshing and life giving, but they really make you sick. What seemed so good turns out to be so harmful. The Torah, in Parashat Nasso in Numbers, prescribes a procedure for a husband who suspects his wife of cheating. The procedure is as follows (simplified, somewhat): a woman is in a compromising situation and the husband suspects, but cannot confirm, adultery, so the women goes to the Kohen at the Mishkan. The Kohen takes an earthen vessel full of sacred water and puts in it dirt from the ground of the Mishkan, and also dissolves a scroll with the following written on it: “may יהוה make you a curse and an imprecation among your people, as יהוה causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend; may this water that induces the spell enter your body, causing the belly to distend and the thigh to sag.” The woman is then to drink the water. If her stomach distends and her “thigh sags” (there’s a lot of commentary on what that might mean”, then she is guilty of adultery and will ultimately be put to death. If she is innocent, she will not be affected by the water and will actually be rewarded with children. So, what’s going on here? One helpful comment in my Chumash is that the nature of doubt is such that the husband will not be satisfied with a judge telling him that she wife did not cheat; he needs definitive proof, a sign from God, otherwise the doubt will always be there, undermining the marriage. That is one explanation for why this seems to be the only commandment in the Torah which relies on a Divine test. Let’s think of that doubt. The husband is unsure. The situation is unclear. The wife may have cheated, or she may not have. She may be in a forbidden state to him (because she cheated), or she may be perfectly “safe” for him to have full relations with. The situation is murky. It’s muddy. Get it? The situation is muddy, just like the water which the woman is to drink. It is unclear. The water is physically not clear, and it is also unclear whether it is harmful or not. Just like the woman may or may not have cheated, the water may or may not be harmful. It is all murky, and this murkiness is bad for the marriage, because as we all know, any good relationship is built on trust (again, I am 16, I know nothing about life). I was talking with my mom about this, and she brought up a very interesting point. If the woman did cheat, and she has faith in God (that He will uphold His word and make her sick by drinking the water), she will confess before she drinks it. If she does this, she will actually walk away free, no execution necessary. If she did not cheat, and she has faith in God that He will uphold His word, then she will drink the water and be rewarded for her innocence with children. If she is innocent but does not have faith in God, she will confess (falsely), will not be punished for something she didn’t do, but also will end up divorced and childless. If she is guilty (she cheated) but does not have faith in God, she won’t confess, will drink the water, because she doesn’t really trust God will make her stomach distend and her thigh sag, and she will be afflicted with these horrible things. It all comes down to trust and faith in God. The dissolving of the curses in water is her internalizing the seriousness and consequences of the act of trust which she is partaking in, and the rewards and punishments. This is a mirror image of the situation between husband and wife. Just as the test is a situation in which the woman must trust in God to uphold his end of the bargain in order to receive blessing, so in a marriage both partners must trust each other to uphold their end of the bargain, and to be faithful themselves. Marriage is murky. You do not always know what your partner is doing. It is trust, though, and faith, which lead to blessing. The prophet Ezekiel (and others) liken Israel’s relationship to God with a marriage. It is a trust exercise, a covenant just like a ketubah. We will have God as our God, and God will have us, Israel, as His people. It is a two way covenant. We must trust that God is always faithful, because that is how we will always be faithful. Just like in a marriage, each partner has to trust that the other partner is being faithful for them to want to be faithful, Israel must trust in God. If it does, it won’t commit “adultery” (as the Prophets often put it), by worshiping/serving other gods. Blessing comes from the trusting, “monogamous” relationship with God. Continuity, children who identify as Jews, comes from maintaining a relationship with God. Which, of course, is difficult, because the waters are murky. We cannot live without God, as individuals and as a people, and yet it is often difficult to be sure of His presence and faithfulness. It is even more murky in the modern world. Science and technology muddy our minds so much that it is a real struggle to trust in a God who has not abandoned us throughout our thousands of years. Is He really there? If He is, is He really the God of Israel? The way we as Jews connect with God’s presence and pass down that connection through the ages is largely through Torah. We internalize the written covnenant between us and God, with its rewards and punishments, just like the wife. That brings me back to Avtalion’s quote from Pirkei Avot. The Jewish people cannot live, cannot survive without Torah, because we cannot live, cannot continue, without God. Just like a man cannot survive without water, just like a man cannot survive without a wife, Israel cannot survive without God. On a day to day level, a water and wife provide respite, comfort, rejuvenation. On a day to day level, God’s Torah provides the same. On a generational level, they provide life and continuity. There is no Jewish people without God and his Torah, without our devotion to it. We do well when we are committed to that relationship, we falter when we lose sight of it. But when we interact with Torah, the waters are very muddied. Is this really God’s word? I myself have been struggling with this greatly. The doubt of a suspicious husband is very much in me. Critical Biblical scholarship casts real doubt on our traditional faith in Torah, as handed down from one generation to the next. Can we maintain a relationship with God, can we survive as a people, without this traditional understanding. A cursory reading of the verse from Pirkei Avot suggests no. The Alexandrian scholars took the very thing that sustains the Jewish people, our water, our Torah, and made it harmful by teaching that it isn’t binding. If Torah isn’t binding, what ensures the continuity of the Jews? The Torah and practice of Torah are what we cling to through the generations. Surely those Alexandrian scholars had similar doubts that we do today. The waters are murky. The laws of the Torah often seem antiquated, like they were just another ancient law code. I don’t think it is wrong to struggle with these realities. In fact, I think we must. In the end, though, I think we must always be faithful. No matter how murky the waters, we must always try to live by the Torah and trust that God will uphold his end of the bargain, trust that He is there and that He is the God of Israel who has given us His Torah, however complicated and messy and murky and hard to believe that Torah is. We have to take the leap of faith, like the faithful wife who drinks the muddy waters, believing that God will bless her for it and keep her safe.



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