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The Systems of the Jewish Year

The Problem With Labels

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

In today’s parsha, we read about an unpleasant event: the investigation by a kohen of a “sotah” - that is, a woman suspected by her husband of adultery, as a result of suspicious behavior on her part.

In connection with this investigation, is the offering that the suspected woman’s husband brings with them to the kohen. It is a very simple offering: one tenth of an ephah of barley meal, without oil or frankincense (Num. 5:15). Why is this? Rashi explains: barley meal (an animal food) was used, instead of wheat flour, because she (allegedly) behaved like an animal. No oil was used because oil is associated with light, and she acted in darkness. Finally, no frankincense was added because our matriarchs are called “frankincense”, but she turned away from their paths.

There is something strange about Rashi’s explanation.

Suppose you met someone who was hopelessly unkempt in every way, and you said to him: “You could use a manicure!” What you are proposing would be completely out of proportion to what was wrong with him.

Similarly, here we have a woman who is being compared to an animal, someone who acts in darkness, and then we say that she does not quite measure up to the standards of the matriarchs!

This last comparison seems incongruous in relation to the first two: she has (supposedly) not been behaving like a decent human being, let alone like Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah!

The answer to this puzzle, I believe, is this. We tend to think of our relationship to the requirements of the Torah strictly in the context of our present behavior. By that I mean that we consider any small improvement on our current behavior (for instance, not using lashon hora in one conversation) as a big thing—which it is! In fact, that is how we are supposed to improve, one little step at a time. But with all that, we should never lose sight of our ultimate goal, which should be to become a tzaddik!

I remember a conversation I had with a friend recently, someone whom I had known for twenty years, since yeshiva. He confessed to me (not that I wanted a confession from him, since that is not a Jewish ideal) that he had been slipping more and more in many of his observances.

To begin with, he stopped wearing a kippa.

Then he found that in the winter it was difficult to leave his office early on Friday in time for Shabbos. Then he found that, for business reasons, he “had to” eat in non-kosher restaurants with clients. And so on. “And do you know,” he concluded, “the amazing thing is that in spite of all this, I’ve managed to remain frum!”

Well, of course, we can laugh at him, and think: “Frum indeed!

Who are you kidding—yourself?” But the point I want to make is that this man is not being completely hypocritical or self-deceiving. He has certain standards, realizes that he has been slipping from them, and, at a certain level, wants to return to them.

Some years ago, when I lived in Jerusalem, and was beginning my keruv work, I had a conversation with a neighbor. She told me that she observed certain mitzvos—Shabbos, kashrus and others.

I then asked her why she did not observe a certain mitzva (one I was concerned about), and she replied: “But I’m Mizrachi, not Aguda!” I wanted to say: “I’m interested in what mitzvos you do, not how you vote!” (I am not trying to condemn Mizrachi here. I just want to make a point.)

What my neighbor was doing was attaching a label to herself. We all do that to some extent, and labels can be useful, as a means of identifying ourselves to the outside world. However labels can also have a bad side, when we use them as ceilings for our behavior, as excuses for not striving to improve ourselves.

Whatever our label, whatever our present affiliation, we can, and should, aim for the very highest. The woman labeled a “sotah” was made to realize that, no matter how low she has fallen, she could have attained—and could still attain—the very highest spiritual level. And so can we all.

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