June 9, 2005
You Are Not Alone
Parshat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:21)
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." When I first read the opening words of Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," I closed the book to wonder if it was true. Were all happy families alike and unhappy families unique? So many years later, as a pulpit rabbi, I still disagree.
In parshat Naso, we are introduced to the rituals concerning the sotah, a wife who is suspected of adultery. If a husband becomes jealous and suspicious of his wife's fidelity, he is to bring her to the priest who concocts a truth serum mixing dust from the sanctuary floor, water and a few dissolved curses. If the wife is innocent, she remains healthy after drinking the bitter water. If she is guilty, she suffers a miscarriage.
At first, the practice seems uncomfortably similar to the trials of seventeenth century Salem. However, one wonders if the ritual, which appears to humiliate a woman publicly, is also in a quiet way trying to protect her. Reading it, I cannot help but think of Tolstoy's myth that all happy families are alike, while unhappy families are each desperately lost and alone.
The sotah ritual takes an unhappy family, one where there is great potential for anger and abuse, and draws them out of their private homes into a sacred and safe space. The message is that the husband is not to take matters into his own hands. In verse 12 we read: "If any man's wife has gone astray and broken faith with him...."
Rashi understands the "him" in this verse to refer to God. With this insight, suddenly, the infidelity becomes a crisis between the adulterer and God as opposed to husband and wife. It is not about the spouse.
In verse 14 it is written that a spirit of jealousy comes over the husband, as if the jealousy came from an outside source, and is out of his control. Rather than allow the situation to escalate more and more out of control within the walls of their home, the husband's suspicions become a public concern, and how it is handled becomes a priestly matter. Their pain is taken out of their house, and brought into God's. The husband is not alone in his jealousy.
The wife, also, is not alone. The Talmud explains that before giving her the waters to drink, the priest tries to find excuses for her, saying: "Wine can be responsible for much, or frivolity can be responsible for much, or childishness can be responsible for much.... He tells her of the affair of Reuben with Bilhah, and the affair of Judah with Tamar. Both of them, he tells her, had confessed their deeds and were not ashamed. What happened to them in the end? They inherited life in the next world" (Midrash Raba).
Often a congregant comes to me when their family is in crisis. Perhaps there is jealousy, anger, sickness, infidelity, and/or abuse. I find that so much time and energy is spent being stunned that this could happen. Little if any strength is left for building a healthy future. I find people have more trouble forgiving their partner for breaking the illusion of happiness than forgiving for whatever actually happened. When sadness strikes, people feel as if it is only happening to them, when, in truth, a rabbi may have heard similar stories from a number of families -- each traveling with their own private well of deep, deep pain.
On Friday nights, the bimah is often filled with people receiving blessings for a wedding, a birth, birthdays or anniversaries. However, never would a couple come before the ark, in front of their congregation, to receive a blessing of guidance when their marriage is suffering. How humiliating. We rarely ritualize bringing our pain to God. We bring our families' happiness, but pain is kept dangerously to ourselves.
In Jewish Women International's Needs Assessment: A Portrait of Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community, it is written: "The myth that Jewish families are immune from abuse enables a system of missed cues, thereby preventing appropriate intervention. Jewish women themselves often delay seeking help or more often never seek help at all."
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that 25 percent of women have been raped or abused. The American Journal of Public Health said that one-third of all teens report experiencing some type of abuse in their romantic relationships including verbal and emotional. The Jewish community invests so much into the making or wanting shidduchs, however we invest terribly little in infusing holiness into the daily labor of maintaining those coveted relationships. It is true that we cannot go into people's houses like the priests of old who would be invited to inspect plagues on the walls. However, we can invite people into our house, into the synagogue, by acknowledging that pain exists, and by creating avenues by which families can bring not only their joy, but also their most burdensome sorrow.
All happy families are not alike, living in Camp Happy, while the rest are on the outside all alone. Pain is inevitable to every family, and so to remain healthy, try to stop being surprised by your sadness. Stop thinking, "Why did this happen to me?" and instead think, "I guess now is when this happens to me."
Use that same energy to think creatively. Use that same strength to invite God to turn your bitter waters sweet and curses into blessings.
Zoë Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah.