Time for Carpool: Sotah 20

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

For most people carpool is a scheduling nuisance, one of those necessary but unwanted jobs of parenting. Helping with homework is not much better. Yet perhaps we should volunteer to do carpool more often and ask teachers to assign more homework.

“She did not even finish drinking and her face would turn green, her eyes protrude and her veins swell and they would say: ‘get her out before she defiles the courtyard’” (Sotah 20a). Despite the cajoling and the dire warnings of what awaits an adulterous woman, the sotah before us refuses to admit guilt. Perhaps she really is innocent in which case she can drink the sotah water with confidence. The Torah even promises she will be rewarded for having been put through such a humiliating ordeal. But should she be guilty the punishment is harsh and swift. Death soon follows perhaps even while she is on the Temple grounds. So why would anyone who is guilty not just admit their guilt, receive a get and move on with their life with no further consequences?

The simple answer is likely they do not fully believe what it says in the Torah - something not at all unreasonable for one who is willing to commit adultery, and for many others. There are many things the Torah says that experience tells us do not play out as described; despite what it says in the Torah we see the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper to cite one example. Faith is most difficult - especially for the unfaithful. The sotah may hear the warning but figures she will take her chances.

Or perhaps the sotah is just too embarrassed to admit what she has done. Yes it would be better to admit now, but she just can't bring herself to do so.

A third possibility is that the sotah internalized the view of the Sages. “If she had merit it suspends [the effect of the water]. There are merits that suspend for one year, there are merits that suspend for two years and there are merits that suspend for three years” (Sotah 20a). We must never look at verses in the Torah in isolation. A verse may say A but often another says B. And A and B might be opposites. This is not Biblical criticism; it is how our Sages understood Torah. “Two verses that contradict one another until a third one comes and reconciles them”. So important is this notion of inherent biblical contradiction that our Sages included this passage in our daily prayers. Torah is a book of life and life is full of contradictions.

An adulterer with merits reflects this sentiment very well, something our Sages well understood. One can commit the most terrible of sins yet such does not negate the good that same person can and often does do. We dare not judge a person solely on one aspect of their life no matter how heinous it might be.

Rav Shimon who disagrees and claims that “merit cannot suspend the bitter waters” (Sotah 22b) does so not because sin and merit cannot co-exist in the same person. Rather to allow such would defeat the entire purpose of the water. Those who are guilty might nonetheless be willing to risk drinking the waters confident that they have enough merit to ensure that there will be no harm at this time[1]. Even worse we will cause those who are truly innocent to be defamed with the claim that they are really guilty but did not die only because of other unrelated merits.

Getting back to carpools and homework. The Gemara queries as to what merit might be able to suspend punishment, even for a sin as grave as adultery. The immediate assumption of the Gemara is in the merit of her Torah study, a mitzva that is equal to all others (Mishna Peah 1:1). Yet the Gemara initially rejects this answer as women are not obligated in the theoretical study of Torah[2] and “greater is the reward for one who is commanded than for one who is not commanded (Kiddushin 31) [3]”. After much give and take the discussion comes full circle and Ravina argues that it is after all the merit of Torah study that pushes off the punishment. Not so much her own study but that of her children and husband. As Rashi explains (s.v.demakrean) it is the “burden” and inconvenience of taking the children to school, along with waiting for their husbands to come home late from their studies that generates much reward.

While for adulterers such efforts prevent immediate death, for the vast majority of us (I hope) enabling others[4] to study can offer great rewards both in this world and the world to come.

[1] As to why they are unconcerned by the fact that their merits can only delay the inevitable such is human nature. We focus on the here and now ignoring the inevitable risks down the road. How else can we explain smoking, bad eating habits, lack of exercise, not saving for retirement, NFL football players - and the list goes on and on. I am reminded of a study in which over 50% of elite athletes said they would take a drug that would kill them within five years if it would also guarantee them a gold medal (see here).

[2] There is no debating the obligation of a woman to study the practical aspects of Torah that apply to her, basically the entire Shulchan Aruch.

[3] While this is counter-intuitive - isn’t a volunteer more laudatory than one who does work out of obligation? - one who is obligated can not come and go as they please, and being obligated to do something causes us to instinctively resent doing it making our doing so of greater merit. It is not by chance that good organizations pay people to get the work done and use volunteers selectively.

[4] While many today may prefer their own study to that of enabling others to study - a most worthy desire - greater is the one who helps others perform mitzvoth than one who does so oneself. That enablers play a greater role than doers explains why society punishes drug dealers more than drug users and the mafia boss more than the hit man. It also explains why those who incite violence are so much more dangerous than the actual perpetrators of violence.