Naso by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Weekly Dvar Torah - Parsha Naso

Naso: The Wife Suspected of Adultery

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark


My name is Tahara bat Sheekorev’Tama, and I am eighteen years old. My husband—that is, the one who accuses me—is Choshesh ben Batuachoo’Mookah. He is a blacksmith, but he has little enough to do during our wilderness sojourn. Where and how can he build a fire hot enough to bend even the soft bronze which our people use for tools? When we encamp for an extended period—such as the many years we dwelt at Kadesh Barnea and did not wander—Choshesh is able to set up his forge, hire a boy to pump the fire with a bellows (Miraculous invention!), and do some business.

When he is idle, he drinks. This does not surprise me; my father was also a smith, and a heavy drinker. When he was in his cups, Papa would beat my mother and me—there were four other children besides me, the eldest, so the beatings were well shared ‘round (I am being ironic; my father beat with a heavy hand, but only his hand.). I was determined, therefore, from the age of ten not to marry either a smith or a drunkard, let alone both.

Alas, God is a righteous Judge, as we are taught,but I do not know why He allowed my father to marry me off at the tender age of twelve—though the Elders approved. And to whom did Papa marry me? Why, to another smith, a young, strapping fellow, Choshesh, who loved to take my hand (though it was forbidden) and walk with me in the fields around Kadesh. Mama would help me pack a small lunch—I was but eleven, and totally inexperienced—and give me a soft, sheepskin blanket. Choshesh was but sixteen, and the two of us were green as grass. We would sit, and talk and talk.

Choshesh was handsome in those days: he had shiny-black, curly hair and large blue eyes with yellow highlights, which fascinated me, since my entire family was blonde—I had never seen a dark-hued man before; not up close. I was surprised, but not unhappy, when Papa announced our betrothal—it turned out that he owed Choshesh a sum of money—not business-related, but a bill at the tavern, when Choshesh had stood Sheekore (my father) to drinks, and my father, as he customarily did, went overboard.

And so, we were married. Choshesh tried to be gentle with me, but, despite the passage of time, I did not become pregnant; I do not know why. The Most High has His reasons, I am sure. Instead of caring for babies, I raised a small flock of goats and sheep purchased from my mother, and treated them like my children—the goats in particular, since they always seemed to have a smile on their faces, and were very gentle, never asking for anything. I loved them all, and even gave them pet names.

Besides, becoming a shepherdess gave me an excuse to spend time in the fields, where I found peace—for Choshesh and my father both were unable to find work in their chosen profession, and neither Mama nor I was able to convince them to look into other ways of making a living—using their considerable strength to help folks move from place to place in the camp, or perhaps becoming carpenters. No: they loved the heat and the smell and the burning power of the forge, and, though it left them looking coal-black by day’s end, would not consider any other way of making a living. Instead of looking for work together—for Papa was in his mid-thirties, and Choshesh only eighteen by this time—they became drinking companions. Mama and I bore the brunt of their liquor-induced rages.

I fled to the fields with my animals whenever I could, and was able to eke out a small living by selling the cheese and goats’-milk my “children” produced. I loved being alone with them—it made up, almost, for the turmoil our home had become. And it stung when Choshesh, usually drunk, would harp on my inability to bear him sons “to help him in the forge,” as he loved to taunt. Why was this my fault? Who was to say if he was not—well, you know.

One day, as I led my little flock to a better stand of grass, far out and away from the camp—I did not fear the nearby Midianites, as General Joshua and his Special Action Squad had dealt those pagans a serious blow just the week before—I came upon another shepherd, one Ahuv—he would not tell me his ancestry; perhaps he had something to hide.

This did not matter to me: he was strong and gentle, and, most importantly, a good listener. He nodded sympathetically when I told him of all my woes—my barrenness (though I refused to blame myself), my hard homelife, my father and husband and their drunken sprees, causing pain and suffering to my mother and myself. He smiled gently, but his eyes welled up with tears.

Ahuv was an—unusual man. He wore white robes, though he was not a priest, and I never saw any part of his body but his pure-white hands and his beautiful head, all covered with blonde hair. And there was something else different about him—I swear that the robes covering his back would seem to move, even on a windless day, as though his shoulder muscles were excessively well-developed. But he never explained, and I did not ask—for I was fearful of losing him.

Still, I was lonely—so, what could I do? I did fall in love with him, but, as a true Daughter of Israel, I refused to commit adultery. I did not even allow him to touch my hand, though my heart ached, and I wished it could be different. I do confess that, one day—it was the fourth week of our trysting—I did accept a mandrake-flower which Ahuv held out to me.

“If we cannot fulfill our love,” the boy told me sadly, “I cannot see you more.” There was a flash of light and the sound of distant thunder, and he was gone.

I cried long and lustily; how could I not? And then, exhausted by the emotions of my true love’s parting so abruptly, and overcome by the heat of the sun (I had drunk all the water from my small leather pottle), I collapsed on Mama’s sheepskin, and slept. (Luckily, my “children” did not run off, nor did a ravenous wolf approach them or me.)

I woke to hear the sound of roaring, and, thinking it a lion or panther, reached for my trusty blackthorn shepherd’s crook, waving it quickly in a low, sweeping motion, to cripple or hobble the legs of my attacker—though my eyes were first opening, and were heavy with sleepy-sand. I heard my attacker hit the ground with a “Whoof!” and rubbed my eyes clear.

It was Choshesh, drunk as usual—how did he find the money to buy liquor, when I was barely able to put bread on the table? My abusive husband screamed at me, calling me lazy, ungrateful, and rebellious. I could not resist; I was not about to be the target of his abuse. While he danced about in foolish rage, I lifted my crook and bashed it hard, straight down on his thick head. He screamed from the pain and would have hit me back, but I crouched low and held my weapon before me—months of shepherding had taught me the cudgel’s many uses.

Choshesh finally calmed down—he saw that he could neither reach nor beat me—and challenged me: “What is that mandrake I see on your mother’s blanket?”

“It is something that I plucked, hoping to become more fertile,” I riposted, “but I would gladly die and go to Sheol, rather than bear any offspring of yours.”

His lip curled, and his eyes flashed vengeful fire. “I will not require of you any more attempts at childbearing,” he said, and my heart rejoiced.

“No,” he went on, “instead, I will have the bailiff call you, Tahara bat Sheekore, to a bet-din law court, at which I will prove conclusively that you played me for a cuckold out here in the fields, meeting with no small number of lovers, the last of whom left you that paltry flower.”

“You cannot engage me in such a lie,” I protested.

“Nay,” he said, “for I am your husband, and my word is law.”

“You may be the husband who claims to rule my life,” I retorted, “but your drunkenness rules your brain.”

He ignored this—and true to his word, the very next day, the bailiff came to my tent-door, and served me with a Priestly Summons to appear before the High Priest and Tribal Law Court, there to discover evidence as to whether I was guilty of adultery. I was nervous, but, with no choice offered an innocent woman, I appeared on the chosen day, dressed in purest white, to show my innocence. My mother and sisters accompanied me, but were not allowed to be present—only my toper husband and father were allowed in the chamber, and why? Because they were men.

Aaron, the High Priest, drew holy water from the basin, and I reached for it, but he waved me away, and bent down to grasp a handful of filthy dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle, mixing it in the water with his priestly finger.

“My daughter, drink this,” he ordered, though gently, “if you are guilty of adultery, your thigh will sag and your belly distend, as with a false pregnancy. And I ask you to say, ‘Amen, amen!’”

“I will do no such thing,” I replied, “unless my lying husband does the same. What sort of God, what sort of Torah is it, that asks me to drink sacred water mixt with lowest dirt? With all due respect, Lord High Priest, perhaps you should drink it yourself—for you killed your late wife with mourning for months and years.”

“Why, you strumpet,” said the High Priest, “were we not in a Place of Holiness, I would slap your face for your mouthiness.”

“Will you not confess,” I went on, “that your excessive mourning for the deaths of your sons Nadav and Avihu, while refusing to comfort your wife,  caused her early death—moreso because there was never clear reason given for their deaths at the hands of the Holy One? I will not submit to your false authority, if your laws offend my sensibilities.”

I dashed the platter of dirty water from Aaron’s hands, pushed past both Choshesh and my father, and stalked out of their Tent of Specious Judgment.

I have since moved completely out of the Israelite camp, and set up my small tent in the wilderness—the desert sun bakes my skin and will kill me, one day, but I am content. I question those parts of Torah which cause prejudice against any other gender, mental or physical condition, or alien tribe, and cannot call myself sister to those Israelites who blindly accept them. Better the company of real, natural sheep, than that of sheep in human form.

NOTE: The ritual of Sotah, the Wife Suspected of Adultery, was finally abolished by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (30 BCE-90 CE) in the days of the Talmud (Sotah 9:9).

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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