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The Sotah’s Husband

Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

“Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: Any man (ish ish) whose wife shall go astray and commit treachery against him…” Bamidbar: 5:12

In the Torah portion, the Torah outlines the mitzvah of the Sotah, whereby a married woman was secluded with another man after having been warned by her husband not to do so.1 In the beginning of the section, when the Torah describes the man, it repeats the word ‘ish’(man) twice. The Midrash makes a number of observations about this verse and the seemingly unnecessary repetition. One of these is that the Midrash says on this verse that a person should be easygoing (vatran) in his household – for example, if wine spills, he should not be overly strict about it on his wife. The obvious question arises, as to why the Torah chose to make this advice on this seemingly totally unrelated verse.

Rabbi Yissachar Frand suggests that the Midrash is prompted by the Torah’s unusual use of the terminology "ish ish" to describe the husband in this situation. He explains that the word ‘ish’ indicates ‘male’ character traits of strength and assertiveness – the double usage implies that the husband was perhaps too assertive or too overbearing in how he ran his house, and unforgiving of mistakes that his wife would inevitably make. As a result of his domineering nature, his wife was tempted to go astray in order to be treated in a gentler fashion. Of course, this is not to exonerate the woman from her sinful behavior, and even if the husband is abusive, this certainly does not justify adultery or even secluding herself with another man, but the Midrash is pointing out that such things do not happen in a vacuum. Her actions may well be a culmination of a problematic relationship that started with smaller things, such as the husband shouting at her for spilling wine. Hence, the Midrash derives from here that a man should be very careful to not be too controlling and overpowering, as that may drive away his wife.

The idea that being overly controlling or domineering is damaging is not restricted to marriage, rather applies to all kinds of relationships. One area where it is particularly relevant is parenting. Parents have a natural power advantage over their children, in that they are bigger, stronger, more intelligent, and have control over all aspects of the family’s life. As a result, it is very easy for a parent to dominate his child and force him to do what the father (or mother) wants the child to do, through threats or other forms of coercion. However, while the parent will normally win the ‘battle’ of getting his child to do his will in that specific situation, the long-term effect of habitually acting in this way can be very negative.

One parenting expert points out that a parent can generally get his child to do what he wants at a young age, but once the child gets older, there will reach a point where the parent will not be able to force his child to act the way he wants him to, and at that point, there is the serious risk that the child will want to break free of the pressure and will act in ways that are very much against the parents’ will, and the parents will be helpless to prevent them. The only way to be able to influence the children at this point in their lives is by developing a positive relationship with them when they are young, so that when they get older, they will want, of their own volition to do their parent’s will, because of their loving relationship.

The following story demonstrates the possible disastrous consequences of forcing a child in the spiritual realm. Renowned educator, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakovsen describes an instance involving a boy who had totally rejected religion. When the father was told that the boy did not even pray, the father expressed his astonishment: “I put so much into my son’s praying…I was always careful that he should come with me to minyan and sit next to me. During the prayers I didn’t even allow myself the luxury of concentrating on my own prayers, for I kept my eye constantly on my son. I made sure that he was following the place in his siddur and if he would start daydreaming, I would immediately step in to make sure that he would get right back to praying.”

When the boy was asked about his rejection of prayer he answered: “There’s nothing that I hate so much as praying. I’ve waited years for the day when I would be old enough to be able to stop praying. Just walking into the shul building gives me a bad feeling. I think it’s because my father was so hard on me about praying that it became such an unbearable burden…”2

This father was able to force his child to pray at a young age, but instead of giving the child a positive attitude towards prayer, all he managed to do was to create such a resentment in the boy that when he was old enough, he immediately broke away from his father’s coercion.

Even though this lesson is particularly relevant to parenting and marriage, it seems that it also arises in every day relationships and conversations. Some people may have stronger personalities and can tend to dominate others into submission in disagreements or debates. However, the weaker party often does not genuinely agree with the other party, rather he feels bullied into capitulation, and in the long-term this can lead to resentment.

We have learnt that the controlling or domineering behaviour of the man can begin the chain of events that results in his wife’s sinning. The Midrash teaches us that the way to rectify such negative consequences is to be forgiving and soft. In this way one builds a relationship on foundations of love and trust rather than fear.

  1. Bamidbar, Chapter 5.
  2. Chinuch in Turbulent Times, Rabbi Dov Brezak, p.42.

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