May 29, 2020
The first part of the portion of Parshat Naso (Numbers 4:21-5:31) (divided into two weeks when Shavuot occurs on Shabbat so that we can stay in sync with Diaspora Jewry) – describe the setting up of the structure and rules for maintenance of the Israelite camp as it was to travel through the wilderness, away from Mount Sinai, and toward the Promised Land. This portion is always read in close proximity to the holiday of Shavuot, the anniversary of the gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Bamidbar is read either right before Shavuot – as happens this year – with Naso following the holiday. Thus the significance of Mount Sinai is always recalled in relation to these readings.
“God spoke to Moses saying, Speak to the Israelite people and say to them, if any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him.” (5:11 – 12) There is a line in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play Raisin in the Sun which has always moved me. It is the story of a poor black family in Chicago who inherits a small amount of money. The son Walter wants to use it to open a liquor store and pull the family out of poverty. The mama is reluctant. Walter asks mama if she trusts him. She says to her son, “I ain’t never stop trusting you. Like I ain’t never stop loving you.” That line seems to summarize the most essential ingredient in any family – trust.
Trust can make or break families. Somebody recently sent me a video of Fred Rogers (Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood) testifying before Congress on the importance of children’s educational television programming. Mr. Rogers said that the most important value young children must learn as they grow up is trust. Today when the government is threatening to cut funding for such programs, I wish that Mr. Rogers was still alive to testify once again. Trust is the glue that holds families together, almost more than love. When love begins to disappear, it can always be rebuilt. But it is extremely difficult to rebuild trust. Particularly in a marriage, trust is an essential ingredient. I have seen marriages rebuilt after infidelity, but such marriages are always damaged.
This week we read an extremely difficult law in the Torah. It speaks about when the trust breaks down between a husband and wife. Such a wife is called a sotah and the husband can put her through a trial by ordeal to see if she has been faithful. She is forced to drink bitter waters which cause certain physical symptoms to appear. The purpose of the ritual was to try to rebuild trust. Fortunately for Jewish tradition, the Rabbis of the Talmudic period did away with this entire ritual. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai said that men who themselves are not faithful cannot become suspicious of their wives. “At the time when the man is free from iniquity, the water proves his wife; but when the man is not free from iniquity, the water does not prove his wife” (Sotah 47b). This is one of the first times in Jewish tradition that men were held to the same standard as women regarding fidelity.
The laws of the sotah have longed disappeared from Jewish life, but the centrality of trust in a marriage and in a family is still important. When I perform a wedding, I spend a good deal of time speaking about making a marriage that works. One of the essential ingredients is an intimate friendship between a husband and a wife. When we think about friendship, we think about opening up to another human being knowing that they are not going to hurt us. Relationships make us vulnerable. To trust another person, particularly our spouse, is essential for a marriage to succeed. That trust goes far beyond marital fidelity. Trust means being honest with another human being. And trust means being vulnerable knowing that the other person will not hurt us.
We live in a culture that worships love. Love is important. But love without trust can never last. That is why I so often teach that trust is the glue that holds families together.