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Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

In The Shadow of Jealousy

One of the most disturbingly misogynistic stories in Torah–and, admittedly, there are many–confronts us in this week’s portion. It describes a humiliating ritual a woman is forced to endure if suspected of adultery by her jealous husband:

“…if a fit of jealousy overcomes one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself, the husband shall bring her to the priest. And he shall bring an offering on account of her [i.e. on account of his jealousy of her]… a meal offering of jealousy, a meal offering of remembrance which recalls wrongdoing.” [Num. 5:14-15]

His wife is then subjected to a degrading public ordeal where her hair is exposed–a sign of disgrace–and she is forced to drink sacral water that has been cursed by the priest and mixed with dirt and ink.

What we see in this passage is ritualized violence perpetrated upon women’s bodies caused by male jealousy. From our progressive modern consciousness this is as inexcusably barbaric as it is absurd and, obviously, is to be unreservedly condemned. We know too well that such violence against women still happens in our world today. This text is a piece of our historical record emerging from a tribal consciousness that also had slaves, and sacrificed animals as part of its daily worship. And though we can’t condone such law, we can still place it in the context of our people’s evolution of consciousness. Now, as rabbis work to unpack the deeper meaning of such controversial texts like the Akeda for example, I would like to propose a “what if?” scenario to offer a completely paradoxical interpretation of this passage as well.

This ritual is so shocking that it pushes me to ask: what if this could have been, at a time before psychotherapy, a 3000 year old version of reverse psychology? When looking at the text closely, we find that it is somewhat tentative in its description of the ritual. It doesn’t side with the husband. Rather, the opposite might be true. Beyond calling the meal offering that the husband is to bring a “meal of jealousy…which recalls wrongdoing”–which can be understood as speaking to his jealous wrongdoing–the ink, that is mixed with the sacral water the woman is to drink, has interesting properties. This ink is used to write–on parchment–the curse that the priest pronounces over the water–the curse which includes the four-letter name of God. Once placed in the water, the ink from the parchment dissolves and God’s name is erased. Were the husband to carry out this appalling ritual–from the jealous husband’s point of view–he would be committing two of the worse possible sins in Jewish tradition. One, in humiliating his wife publically he would cause “public shaming,” which is seen as tantamount to murder. Two, he would also desecrate the holy name of God by causing its erasing.

In a male dominated society, the Torah commands the performing of a public ritual so egregious that the husband himself wouldn’t want to do it in the first place. Indeed, the ritual itself is so heinous, the public violence against his wife so hateful, the sins he would be committing in the process so great, that one can only surmise it would never happen. It is because this entire ritual is utterly offensive, that it is possible to envision that the biblical author thought of it as the ultimate deterrent. It served the purpose of making the jealous husband bump up against his own psychology in a way that was so embarrassing and sinful to him, that he would think very carefully before yielding to his jealous impulses. And so, what if this passage was not at all concerned with the evil of adultery, but instead with the evil of jealousy? What if the accusatory finger pointed at the husbands, not at the wives?

The Jewish Bible is replete with stories of jealousy beginning with Cain’s toward his brother Abel. And if it keeps bringing it up scroll after scroll, it is because jealousy, then as now, remains a dark shadow in human experience; one that must be looked at in our own make-up. If we take a good hard look within, we find that jealousy comes, ultimately, from our attachments and from fear. The “me” gets attached to things and persons it desires to possess and/or control, and fears losing them because these “others” and these “things” are the mirrors in which our ego sees his sense of self, his sense of existing being reflected. Our task on the spiritual path, therefore, is to work toward letting go of our attachments and our fears.

As the great master Yoda once said to young Anakin Skywalker: “The fear of loss is a path to the dark side… Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” Only when we stop fearing the possible loss of those we purport to love, can we begin to love them truly.