S.A.L.T. - Motzaei Shabbat
The Torah in Parashat Naso introduces the laws relevant to the case of a sota – a woman whose husband suspects her of infidelity, and, after he warns her not to seclude herself with the man in question, she is seen going into a room alone with that man. In such a case, the couple may not engage in marital relations until the wife is brought to the Beit Ha-mikdash and given special water to test whether or not she had an adulterous relationship. If she did, then she would die after drinking the water, whereas if she did not, then “she will be innocent, and she will conceive with offspring” (5:28).
The Gemara (Sota 26a) cites Rabbi Akiva as explaining this verse to mean that if the woman had been unable to conceive, she would now be blessed with children. Rabbi Yishmael interprets the verse differently, explaining that the woman would either experience easier births, or would deliver better-looking children, than she had previously. According to both views, the Torah promises that the woman would receive a special blessing if she underwent this ordeal without having been guilty of adultery.
Many writers addressed the question of why the woman would be deserving of a special blessing. Although she did not commit an adulterous act, she did behave very inappropriately. As mentioned, the sota procedure is done only if a wife acts flirtatiously to the point where her husband finds it necessary to tell her not to be alone with a certain man, and then the wife is seen secluding herself with that individual. This is, undoubtedly, improper conduct, and thus, even if the woman does not deserve capital punishment, as she did not commit an adulterous act, she does not seem to deserve any sort of reward. And while it is true that she experienced the humiliation of being suspected of an offense of which she was not guilty, she exposed herself to suspicion through her inappropriate conduct. Why would she be deserving of a special blessing?
Rav Eliyahu Lopian boldly answered this question based on the Gemara’s teaching in Masekhet Makot (23b) that a person who abstains from a sin which he has the opportunity to commit receives reward as though he performed a mitzva. Consciously deciding not to act wrongly, the Gemara establishes, is tantamount to the performance of a mitzva, for which one earns reward. Rav Lopian thus suggests that although the woman made the wrong decision to befriend a man in a suspicious manner, and then go into seclusion with him, nevertheless, she deserves reward for not following through, and refraining from an adulterous act. She of course should not have placed herself in such a situation, but once she was in this situation, she is credited with a mitzva for stopping herself rather than commit of an act of infidelity.
Rav Efrem Goldberg observed that this insight underscores the importance of what we might call “damage control,” of halting a process of spiritual decline after one has begun a negative behavior pattern. A person who has begun acting wrongly might mistakenly feel that he cannot turn back, that once he has reached this point, and fallen to this level, he is already tainted, and so he might as well continue along his sinful path until the end. Rav Lopian’s comments teach that even after we made a bad decision, even after we have placed ourselves on the wrong trajectory, there is immense value to halting the process, to minimizing the failure, to avoiding further wrongdoing and trying to work our way back. Even if we’ve begun falling into a downward spiral, we have the ability – and the responsibility – to stop the process, and this decision constitutes a mitzva for which we are promised reward.
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