Disappearing Ink: Naso 2018

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: Have you ever tried to erase an aspect of your past you regret? If so, how successful were you in subverting embarrassing or painful memories? What are the pros and cons of this kind of purge?

As the Torah describes the mysterious Sotah rituals, involving a woman accused of adultery, we learn that the woman is to drink a glass of water with erased words:

The Pitch: “The priest shall put these curses down in writing and rub it off into the water of bitterness.” – Numbers 5:23

Swing #1: “From this we conclude that the Torah gives permission to erase God’s Name, because by means of this erasure, peace is created between husband and wife. And between husband and wife dwells the presence of God. But this is no expulsion of God’s presence; on the contrary, it is an invitation to the Divine presence. Indeed, ‘peace’ is another name for the Holy One, so there is no expulsion here, only changing God’s Name into another form.” – Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague

Swing #2: “Adultery is then the quintessential act of darkness. This is the real problem: it is extremely hard – that God must vanish in such a moment. In a world where the sense of the divine and the sense of transgression are still active, the adulterer must enter a state of dissociation. He must fragment his reality. The secrecy that the couple desire goes deep; it becomes an inner discontinuity, as though one were keeping one’s experience as a kind of secret from oneself. Perhaps in this sense we can understand why, in the Sotah ritual, God’s name is dissolved in water.” – Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers

Swing #3: “I wondered if somehow the ink itself was the poison that could make my wife’s flesh rot. Or perhaps it was simply absorbing the name of God that made the water so dangerous. We Jews are not in the habit of erasing God’s name from anything. In fact, doing so is against the rules.” – Justin Rocket Silverman, from Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle With the Torah, edited by Roger Bennett

Late-Inning Questions: In the ritual of the Sotah, the woman’s guilt is determined based on her body’s reaction to drinking the bitter water. How do our commentators understand the significance of swallowing a substance that previously had God’s name, and curses, written upon it? Is this act better seen as an effort to bring God closer to a married couple? Or a symbol of how an unfaithful marriage only blots out the best of what God is?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We are so fortunate to celebrate four different young men reaching their Bar Mitzvah milestones over the next four weeks. What a great way to conclude the school year!

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of what can happen when handwriting is smudged … the distance between the pitching rubber and home plate has been, for most of baseball’s existence, 60 feet and 6 inches. Why the 6 inches? When the rule was first written down in the late 19th century, the instructions to mark “60.0” feet was misread as “60.6” feet. Who knows how baseball history would have changed had the pitcher been allowed to be a half-foot closer to home plate?

Shabbat Shalom!