It is perhaps quite fitting that Philip Roth (zichrono livracha – may his memory be a blessing) passed away this week, and that his yahrzeit, his memorial anniversary, will be remembered on parshat Naso, when we read – as Julia did so well – as we read of the Sotah, the woman suspected of adultery and the ordeal that she underwent to ascertain the veracity of the jealous assertions of her suspicious husband.
If not exactly fitting to Philip Roth, there is something of a delicious irony in the juxtaposition. For Roth – who many have lauded as the most important American-Jewish author of the twentieth century – never shied away from describing the nitty-gritty of the family life, the jealousies of its relationships and the bodily ordeals, as mostly seen from a male perspective. If anyone could get inside the head of the biblical jealous husband of today’s Torah portion, fretting over the imagined indiscretions of his wife with increasing frenzy, it is Roth. His passing marks the end of an era, but his legacy remains as we read and re-read his many memorable works.
Jealousy and its ramifications is a recurrent theme throughout the Hebrew Bible. In a fit of pique, Cain kills his brother Abel, envious that his brother’s sacrifices are acceptable to God while his own are not. The sisters Leah and Rachel both crave what the other one has – the elder their husband’s love, the younger her sister’s fecundity and children. And even God is described on many occasions as a “jealous God” – “el kana” – to whom perhaps the worst crime is to abandon Him by fooling around with other gods. This, the Bible says, will enrage God and will be met with severe punishment. That God is a jealous God is very revealing, and in its own laconic way, the Bible paints the broad brush strokes of human emotion that remain living and relevant to us 3000 years after the Torah was written. It was a rabbinic endeavor, through commentary and midrash, to fill in some of the details, and in a way a writer like Philip Roth fills in ever more emotion and detail – even to the point of perhaps TMI “too much information” at times.
Julia – you have done marvelously well this morning and led us with confidence and with flair. As a middle child – the second of three sisters – you know very well what it is to be at the heart of family dynamics. On a good day, you can be inspired by and be inspirational to both Sara and Naomi – and I know that you are keen to set a good example to them both. You have worked hard in becoming a bat mitzvah, and we are delighted to be welcoming you into our Jewish community as an adult. In whichever direction life takes you, you can be confident that you can cling fast to the Torah, to its lessons and to its wisdom, and kal vahomer - so much more so than even a Philip Roth book, the Torah is the ultimate bestseller - it is there to be read and re-read continually, to inspire us. As Rabbi Ben Bag Bag told us many moons ago – with the Torah you can turn it and turn it and turn it again – each time there is something new to be found, each time there is a new nuance to be discovered.
Even 2000 years ago in the Mishnah, the Sotah ritual was already understood to have passed into history and had no status in rabbinic law. Its power was back then already considered to have been lost, and the rite was discontinued due to the proliferation of adulterers. It’s certainly not something that we would consider bringing back today. But the power of the Torah reminds us of a historical solution to an age-old problem, and the ritual remains intriguing until this day. It is, of course, a cautionary tale for those who read the bible literally, and believe in following the letter of the law even now. Text without context can be dangerous, and as we know, a little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing. It is a reminder that a Bat Mitzvah is just the beginning of a lifelong journey of Jewish learning, and Julia, I hope that you will continue to study Torah all your life. It is a worthy and enriching enterprise, and one that will stand you in good stead for all your days. Shabbat shalom.