The Comfort Zone: Sotah 44

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |
 
Part of the purpose of the harsh treatment of the Sotah is convincing the suspected adulteress to admit her infidelity. By doing so she is given a divorce and can move on with her life as no further punishment is given. We assure her that if she is innocent she has nothing to fear, but repeatedly warn her of the dire consequences i.e death, if she refuses to admit her guilt.  
 
Human nature being what it is such warnings do not always work. Psychologically we tend to focus on the here and now and to admit guilt would be most embarrassing so one avoids present embarrassment even at the risk of a worse fate later. 
 
This fear of embarrassment serves, at least according to Rav Yossi Haglili, as the impetus for the laws relating to a Jewish army. The Torah grants exemptions from army service to those who have built a new house and not yet consecrated it, planted a vineyard and not yet enjoyed its fruit, and betrothed a woman but not yet married her. The details of this exemption form the basis of the eighth chapter of Sotah and need not concern us here. What is of interest is the fourth category of exemption. "And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say: 'Who is the man who is fearful and faint-hearted? Let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren's heart melt as his heart'" (Devarim 20:8). The success of an army is undermined if fear is allowed to manifest itself. Those who in the words of Rabbi Akiva "cannot stand in the battle lines and see a drawn sword" do all a favour by going home. 
 
Yet Rabbi Yossi Haglili understands the verse to be referring not [only] to physical fear but to spiritual fear as well. "Afraid and disheartened"- this is the one who is afraid because of the sins he has committed". Pre-dating David Ben-Gurion's observation that "in Israel in order to be a realist one must believe in miracles" Rav Yossi Haglili asserts that one who is afraid that they are not worthy of "miracles" is exempt from the army. This debate in and of itself is a fascinating one and is especially ironic in light of those who claim that religious students should be exempt from the army. If any are to be exempt it is to be those who observe fewer mitzvot[1]
 
But it is his following assertion that is quite remarkable. "Therefore the Torah connected all these with him [the fearful one] that he may return home on their account" (Sotah 44a). Rav Yossi Haglili claims that the only reason the Torah exempted the about to be married, one who bought a house and planted a vineyard is to provide cover for those who have sinned. By providing these other exemptions, the sinner need not fear that he is admitting sin as there are other valid reasons for leaving the army.  
 
Admitting sin is most praiseworthy but most difficult and we need to help those who are willing to do so. In a similar vein the Torah commands a sin offering be brought in the exact same place in the Temple as a burnt offering lest the sinner be too embarrassed to bring his sin offering, or perhaps even worse we embarrass the one who does bring his sin offering.  

Taking their cue from the Torah itself our Rabbis made many takanot, ordinances, to prevent embarrassment and to help those seeking to repent. They ordained that one must pray in silence "so as not to embarrass sinners" who confess their sins to G-d in prayer (Sotah 32b). One who steals material and uses it in construction of a house is technically required to return the stolen item even if the only way to do so is to tear the house apart. That is nice in theory but needless to say is less than practical. Thus in contravention of the biblical law, but in order to encourage repentance, our Sages ordained that paying the monetary value of the stolen item would be deemed sufficient. Then we have rules to protect the ignorant. The Sages instituted that when one brings his bikkurim fruit the kohen is to recite the required Hebrew declaration word for word with the farmer so those farmers who cannot read on their own not be embarrassed (Bikkurim 3:7). They understood that those who are made to feel uncomfortable "in shul" will stop coming. These types of takanot are found in many diverse areas - and all have the same goal - to make people feel comfortable and confident in their practice of Judaism.
  
What is scary about Rabbi Yossi Haglili's assertion is what constitutes a sinner. "He who speaks between [donning] one phylactery and the other has committed a transgression and returns home under the war-regulations" (Sotah 44b). Putting on tefillin is great but engaging in conversation while doing so one becomes ineligible to serve in the army. While this halacha is generally observed - after all such requires only a minute or less of silence - other views quoted by our Sages are more readily ignored. The Tur quotes the Jerusalem Talmud that one who speaks between Yistabach and Barchu may [must?[2]] be exempted from the army. This is frightening when we consider that this marks a transition point in the davening and as such many interruptions that are not normally allowed are allowed then. It is much worse to speak during chazarat hashatz or the Torah reading.
  
Yet (thankfully) at the same time our tradition offers great merit even for what may appear to be relatively simple acts of mitzva[3]. "And he shall say unto them, Shema Yisrael" (Sotah 42a). As the Jewish people prepare for battle they are given a pep talk by the kohen specifically appointed for this task. While he is speaking to the people to listen our rabbis saw an additional allusion in these words. "Why must he just [open with the words] 'Shema Yisrael'? - Rav Yochanan said in the name of Rav Shimom bar Yochai: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, Even if you only fulfilled the commandment to recite the Shema you will not be delivered into [the enemy's] hand[4]". May such be fulfilled in our days.  
 
 
[1] In practice this argument may have little relevance today as the Mishna notes that these exemptions only apply to an "optional war" but not to an obligatory war such as those the protect the land and people of Israel. In these wars all must fight "even the chatan from his wedding chamber and the kallah from her wedding canopy" (Sotah 44b).
  
[2] With the Gemara silent on this point commentaries dispute whether these exemptions allow or requires one to leave the army.
  
[3] Earlier in Masechet Sotah (see here) we discussed how rewards for good are always greater than punishment for bad. 
  
[4] While these teachings may be contradictory (though various solutions are offered) such reflects the nature of the Jewish people. We often combine acts of great merit with those of no merit (or worse).