The Sotah Among Us

The Talmud (Sotah 2a) asks: “why are the tractates of Sotah and Nazir juxtaposed? To teach us that one who sees the Sotah in her degradation should take a vow of abstinence from wine.” The Nazir is the individual, man or woman, who strives to elevate his/her spiritual level by accepting additional restrictions, such as abstention from wine. The Sotah is the married woman who improperly secludes herself with another man, is suspected of adultery, and undergoes a ritual ordeal in the Bet HaMikdash that adjudicates her guilt or innocence.

“One who sees the Sotah in her degradation should take a vow of abstinence from wine.” But why? Perhaps the Sotah herself is the one who should lay off the booze, not the innocent onlooker.

Rav Moshe Zvi Neria, the great thinker and founder of Bnai Akiva, commented that “seeing” here is not an idle or neutral pursuit, but “seeing” in the sense of
understanding. What must be understood ?

The Torah exists in two different realms – the normal and the abnormal. In the conventional world, our lives are bounded by mitzvot and service of G-d. Each field of endeavor, each human activity, and each desire is moderated and sanctified. These commandments – most of them , in fact – regulate a normal life and straighten out our paths.

But there is another realm in which Torah exists as well – the abnormal, typified by the Sotah. She represents the collapse of the Jewish family; even if innocent of adultery, she is still guilty of seclusion. A person who sees these deviations must immediately take corrective measures, otherwise he runs the great risk of thinking that the abnormal is normal, that everyone is doing it, or that somehow he is missing out on all the fun.

It is hard to escape the tawdriness and degradation of the modern world. Each day brings new “celebrities” in this genre. One day it is John Edwards, whose despicability is reaching its inevitable denouement in a courtroom. Another, it is Anthony Weiner, whose contrition today seems on par with his haughtiness on all other days. (Strange: Republican Congressman Chris Lee (NY-26) did  something similar but less salacious and didn’t lie about it but still resigned almost immediately. Are the moral rules different for Democrats ?) Not long ago, it was Elliot Spitzer, and even more recently Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Arnold
Schwarzenegger, et al.

We are forced to endure what seems like an avalanche of decadence, and we delude ourselves into thinking that it does not affect us. It does. How? We start to think that it is normal – sad, tragic, depraved – but normal. Everyone is doing it. “One who sees the Sotah in her degradation” must do something, lest he conclude it is not degraded at all, but rather part of life. Everyone is doing it.

But everyone is not doing it. Most marriages do not end in divorce, and most spouses do not cheat on each other, and most people do not murder or steal, and most of our children do not go off the derech. It only seems that way, because our world is filled with the ubiquitous images of the violators, but they are not typical at all. They are deviants. They are exceptions to the norm.

“One who sees the Sotah in her degradation should take a vow of abstinence from wine.” The onlookers, the passersby – they are the ones in danger of being seduced by the existence of the Sotah into thinking that the world is degenerate and corrupt while in reality it is mostly good and decent.

“Abstaining from wine” means that a person must temporarily deprive himself of the means of obscuring his moral sense, which alcohol will do in sufficient quantity. He has to counterbalance what he sees so it does not distort his world view. How that is to be done is not as simple as saying “get rid of the television.” That might help, but is still not enough. There is radio, there are newspapers,
there is the public domain. Sometimes it is difficult to walk down the street
these days without encountering a full range of Sotah-wannabes.

The least we can do – and the first step we must take as we observe the travails of Weiner, Edwards, and the rest is to realize that it is not normal, that it is atypical and disgraceful behavior, and that it is a moral offense, repugnant to our
sensibilities. If saying that certain conduct is “immoral” stamps us as judgmental, then so be it. Normal human beings make judgments all the time.

Where society is debauched, and too many are quick to rationalize misbehavior and trivialize iniquity, then we must go to the opposite extreme – for our own protection and to safeguard our own moral preserve. The Nazir and the Sotah are polar opposites – one takes on more prohibitions because the other observed too few. To uphold our moral standards in the face of unpopularity is a badge of honor, worthy of those who again preparing to receive the Torah as on the day it was given to us at Sinai.

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