The Fidelity Test
Certain Torah readings coincide with special occasions. This week’s parsha, entitled Naso, is always read in proximity to the Festival of Shavuos, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
It is no accident that the very name of the Torah portion alludes to the underlying dynamic of this unprecedented event.
Our Sages describe the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai as the wedding between G‑d and the Jewish people. The Hebrew word for marriage is nesu’in and the name of the parsha is Naso, both of which share the same linguistic root.
Although the Parsha does not specifically speak about entering into a marriage, it does discuss one way a marriage can go wrong. It involves a sotah, a woman suspected by her husband of infidelity. He would bring her to the Bais Hamikdash, where she would be required to drink a harmless potion consisting of ink from the words of this Parsha erased into a jug of water. If she were guilty, the potion would miraculously cause her demise; but if she were innocent, her life would make a turn for the better.
The Talmud makes a very strong argument for the sanctity of peace within marriage based on this Torah portion. The fact that G‑d allowed His name, which appears in this section of the Torah, to be erased for this purpose demonstrates how precious peace is in a marriage. G‑d, in effect, says, “I don’t mind the erasure of My name as long as it can restore the peace between husband and wife.”
G‑d’s greatest wish is for us to live in peace and harmony with our spouses. This includes a peaceful relationship with G‑d whom we were wed to at Sinai; the ultimate form of this relationship is what we will enjoy in the Messianic Age.
A Key Word
A significant word introduces this section, which, when examined in depth, will contribute to our understanding of how to maximize the love and fidelity within our marriage on the physical, emotional and spiritual levels.
The Torah introduces the section of the sotah with the words: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: If any man’s wife goes astray…”
The Hebrew word for astray-sisteh (which has the same root as the word sotah) is associated in the Talmud with the word shtus-folly. The Talmud (Tractate Sotah 3a) observes: “One does not transgress unless a spirit of folly enters him.”
Chassidic thought adapts this concept of folly and reapplies it in a positive vein. Just as irrational and destructive behavior can take a person away from his or her marriage (both the literal human union and the figurative marriage with G‑d), one can also engage in supra-rational behavior to enhance the relationship and take it to an incredibly high level.
As the Previous Rebbe explains in his classic Discourse, Basi L’Gani, there is a mean or norm in all things, and going either beneath it or above it is shtus-folly. The way to undo the negative form of foolishness is by going above and beyond the norm.
Dancing with the Myrtles
To illustrate this point, the Previous Rebbe cites a story in the Talmud (Kesubos 18a):
It was said of R. Yehudah the son of R. Ila’i that at weddings he would twirl a sprig of myrtle as he danced before the bride…. Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak would dance with three (“He would juggle with three twigs of myrtle.”-- Rashi).
When Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak passed away, "a pillar of fire appeared, separating him from all those who were near him."
R. Zeira thereupon stated: "The venerable sage has been well served by his folly.”
Dancing while juggling myrtle sprigs and behaving in a manner contrary to the standard rational approach of Torah scholars, ultimately led to "a pillar of fire that separated him from all those who were near him” upon his passing. This was a manifestation that he was “head and shoulders” above the others precisely because of his unconventional behavior.
Myrtle or Hirduf?
What significance is there in knowing that these venerable Sages danced and juggled with a myrtle sprig at a wedding?
One answer that can be offered is based on the Talmud’s discussion of the use of the myrtle in the Festival of Sukkot. The Torah describes this branch as a “branch of plaited leaves.” The Talmud (Sukkah 32b) queries whether the Torah is referring to the hirduf, another plant that also has a thick covering of leaves? Rava answered with the verse: “Love truth and peace.” The poisonous hirduf contributes to neither peace nor truth, for it is a destructive plant.
In other words, the myrtle was chosen over the hirduf plant because it symbolizes the twin traits of truth and peace.
The process of testing the sotah was entwined with both peace and truth. It involved an attempt to verify the sotah’sclaim of innocence so that peace could be restored between the spouses. It is here where these two traits, truth and peace, come together.
Thus, by dancing with the myrtle sprigs, these great Sages were attempting to highlight the two governing principles of a good marriage: truth and peace. A marriage in which there is deception cannot last and a marriage without peace is unhealthy indeed.
However, by acting in an irreverent fashion, dancing and juggling with the myrtle, the very symbol of truth and peace, at the beginning of a marriage these great Sages intended to teach us that we must not settle for a rational and normal level of peace and truth in our relationships. We must take these two values to an extreme; all the way to a supra-rational level.
Futuristic Peace and Truth
We must try to understand what constitutes a supra-rational level of truth and peace.
One may suggest the following explanation:
In Galus-exile we also can have both truth and peace but only in a Galus compromised fashion.
One who enjoys peace because he lacks truth, knows only a lesser form of peace. To be sure, it beats conflict, but it leaves much to be desired. In Galus, truth and peace are not always compatible. There are times when peace trumps truth. An example of this is the Talmud’s description of how Aaron, Moses’ brother, would make peace between husband and wife or two erstwhile but alienated friends, by telling each side that the other was sorry and really cared for the other.
Just as there are situations that require bending the truth to restore peace, there are, conversely, occasions when one must bend the peace to uphold the truth. The case of the sotah is a prime example. When a husband takes his wife to Jerusalem because he suspects her of infidelity it is a huge breach of their peace. But he does it anyhow to ascertain the truth about her behavior. Only in the end do these traits merge. The truth of her innocence is determined and peace is restored.
Even the simple marriage celebration can illustrate the tension between the two ideals of truth and peace that exist in an imperfect world.
Beauty in the Eyes of the Beholder
The Talmud (Kesubos 18a) discusses the dispute between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel concerning the praise that we may offer up to a bride. The School of Hillel maintains that we may praise her as being beautiful and gracious even if it is objectively clear that she is not. The School of Shammai considers this to be dissembling and forbids it. The School of Hillel’s rationale is that to the husband she is indeed beautiful. This is akin to the saying “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.”
This idea can have application beyond the wedding celebration: When we see a Jew who does not seem to be beautiful in his or her Judaism, we must recognize that G‑d (the ultimate Husband) sees the inner beauty of every Jew. But, from our limited vantage point, description of the person as beautiful when it does not seem that way on the surface is inconsistent with truth. Nevertheless, to cultivate peace we tolerate the compromised state of truth.
The opinion of the School of Hillel is the prevailing view in the present day and age. However, the Arizal informs us that in the Messianic Age, we will follow the School of Shammai in their disputes with the School of Hillel.
It can be said about the School of Shammai that they chose a more radical, uncompromising, and supra-rational form of truth and peace. Shammai says an adamant “no” to the adulteration of standards. One must always strive, dance and juggle for the higher, unadulterated form of the myrtle, where truth and peace are absolutely compatible. Shammai and his students were able to see the future, messianic marriage of G‑d and Israel, at which time these ideals will be complete.
In the Messianic version, the bride (read: the Jewish people) will indeed look beautiful inside and out. There will be no discrepancy between the inside and the outside as we can see now in our Galus state of existence.
Thus, when the Sages danced at the wedding with their myrtles, which symbolized the traits of truth and peace in their coexisting and harmonious state, they were trying to teach us something. Their important lesson was that although one is permitted to compromise truth for the sake of peace, and in some tragic situations one must also compromise peace for truth, this is not the ideal. That might be the norm or a necessary evil while we are in Galus, but it is not what we strive for.
When we pray for Redemption through Moshiach, who possesses the twin traits of truth and peace, our most heartfelt prayer is for G‑d to be fully revealed so that we see the unvarnished truth of existence. We also, simultaneously, plead with G‑d to cover us with His Sukkah of unmitigated and unqualified Peace.