Beneath the Surface
There is a mystifying story told in Massekhet Sukkah1 which references the Sotah ritual—the supernatural trial of a woman suspected of adultery. In the story, King David’s workers are beginning to dig the foundations of the Beit HaMikdash (Temple). A significant structure requires deep foundations, and they dig so far that they touch upon underground aquifers. The waters of the deep, surprised by this disturbance and eager to spread, surge to the surface and threaten to submerge the earth. At this point, David has a plan to get the waters to recede, but he is unsure if his plan will anger God:
תלמוד בבלי סוכה נג.:
אמר דוד: מי איכא דידע אי שרי למכתב שם אחספא ונשדיה בתהומא ומנח?
ליכא דקאמר ליה מידי.
אמר דוד: כל דידע למימר ואינו אומר - יחנק בגרונו.
נשא אחיתופל קל וחומר בעצמו: ומה לעשות שלום בין איש לאשתו, אמרה תורה: שמי שנכתב בקדושה ימחה על המים, לעשות שלום לכל העולם כולו - על אחת כמה וכמה. אמר ליה: שרי.
כתב שם אחספא, ושדי לתהומא, ונחית תהומא שיתסר אלפי גרמידי.
כי חזי דנחית טובא, אמר: כמה דמידלי טפי מירטב עלמא.
אמר חמש עשרה מעלות ואסקיה חמיסר אלפי גרמידי, ואוקמיה באלפי גרמידי.
Talmud Bavli Sukkah 53a-b
David said, “Does anyone know whether it is permitted to write God’s name on a shard [of pottery] so we could throw it into the watery deep and [the waters] will rest?”
No one responded to him.
David said: Anyone who knows what to say and isn’t saying it shall be hanged by his throat! Ahitofel inferred: If in order to make peace between a man and his wife, the Torah says the divine name written in holiness can be erased into water,2 how much more so in order to make peace in the whole world! [Ahitofel] said to him: It is permitted.
He wrote the Name on a shard and threw it into the watery deep, and the water receded sixteen-thousand amot.3 When he saw that it had receded too much, David said: The more it rises the more the world is moistened. He composed the fifteen [Songs of] Ascents, and [the water] rose fifteen-thousand amot, remaining at one-thousand amot [beneath the earth’s surface].
In its Talmudic context, this story is brought as a geneology for the 15 psalms, Shirei HaMa’alot (Songs of Ascent),4 that King David wrote on this occasion. However, the story is not really about David and his psalms. It is about the enterprise of building a home, what is risky and dangerous about it, and what can be done to help set a home on a solid foundation. It is about the Sotah ritual, discussed in this week’s parashah, and it is about how fragile romantic relationships can be and what the Sotah ritual can teach us about how to strengthen and restore them.
The building of the mishkan and the Beit HaMikdash afterward is understood in romantic terms. God does not just dwell “among” us in these structures, this is where God lives with us. This relationship is highlighted by a passage in Massekhet Sanhedrin:
תלמוד בבלי סנהדרין ז.
א"ל שמואל לרב יהודה: קרא כתיב: גַּם אִישׁ שְׁלוֹמִי אֲשֶׁר בָּטַחְתִּי בו ֹאוֹכֵל לַחְמִי הִגְדִּיל עָלַי עָקֵב (תהלים מא:י). ההוא דהוה קאמר ואזיל - כי רחימתין הוה עזיזא אפותיא דספסירא שכיבן, השתא דלא עזיזא רחימתין פוריא בר שיתין גרמידי לא סגי לן. אמר רב הונא: קראי כתיבי. מעיקרא כתיב: ונועדתי לך שם ודברתי אתך מעל הכפורת (שמות כה:כב), ותניא - ארון תשעה וכפורת טפח הרי כאן עשרה, וכתיב: והבית אשר בנה המלך שלמה לה' ששים אמה ארכו ועשרים רחבו ושלשים אמה קומתו (מלכים א ו:ב), ולבסוף כתיב: כֹּה אָמַר ה' הַשָּׁמַיִם כִּסְאִי וְהָאָרֶץ הֲדֹם רַגְלָי אֵי זֶה בַיִת אֲשֶׁר תִּבְנוּ לִי וְאֵי זֶה מָקוֹם מְנוּחָתִי (ישעיה סו:א).
Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 7a
Shmuel said to Rav Yehudah: The verse says—Even my own friend, whom I trusted and who ate my bread, has turned against me (Tehillim 41:10). This is what he used to say—When our love was strong, we would sleep on the width of a blade, now that our love is not strong, a bed of 60 amot is not sufficient for us. Rav Huna said: There are pesukim written about this. At first it is written—And I will meet you there and speak to you from the kaporet (Shemot 25:22), and we learn—the ark was 9 [tefahim] and the ark’s cover, the kaporet was one tefah, which makes 10 [tefahim]5 and it is written—The house that King Shlomo built was 60 amot long and 20 wide and 30 amot tall (I Melakhim 6:2) but at the end it is written—So HaShem said, Heaven is my throne and the Earth is my footstool; What house could you possibly build for me? Where is the place of My rest? (Yeshayahu 66:1).
Shmuel’s statement and Rav Huna’s explanation reflect a number of different stages in our relationship with God. God took us out out of Egypt, split the Red Sea in an unrivaled display of courtship. We accepted the Torah, which the Rabbis identify with our wedding to God, יום חתונתו.6 When we were in the wilderness and God was dwelling in the mishkan, that was a sort of honeymoon period. It was a time of transition and a time of poverty, but also a time of intimacy which we would look back on fondly. The building of the Temple is a time of maturity and stability. The mishkan is like a couple’s renting a small studio together as their first apartment; the Beit HaMikdash is like buying a house, becoming homeowners together. Exciting, but stressful. And as the relationship with God progressed, according to Rav Huna, we encountered moments of severe strain, almost to the point of divorce. The intimate times when a pup tent felt too big gave way to a time when even a mansion felt small and suffocating.
The story with David and the watery deep occurs at the stressful moment of beginning to build that house, the permanent structure. The Beit HaMikdash is not a tent that can be disassembled at will—it is a commitment of beams of cedar. When you start to build a house of scale you have to check the foundations. You have to ask serious questions about the soundness of the current or eventual structure, and you often find possible sources of instability—or worse—lurking under the surface. This is the case with romantic relationships as well. As the relationship becomes more serious, questions get asked about its durability. The exciting time of building a life together is also a time of examining the foundations and uncovering some of the tensions and unease that live underneath the surface. This probing of the foundations is often the point at which relationships dissolve. This is not a time of placidity.
When David dug beneath the surface, he found a churning, frothing, almost vengeful deep. Underneath what seemed to be solid reliable ground, was a lot of discontent, displeasure, and unease that did not do well when disturbed. David understands that the waters represent charged emotions. This made him turn to the story of the Sotah, the Torah’s paradigmatic case of a relationship that is about to be torn apart by jealousy.
The potion7 of the Sotah ritual involves three components: earth from the floor of the holy precincts, water in an earthenware vessel, and the erased words of the oath that the Sotah is made to take.8 David saw the connection between the earth of the mishkan and the earth that he was disturbing for the construction of the Beit HaMikdash. He also recognized the waters. And he thought to himself: what is missing is the words of the oath. More importantly, he recognized the similar dynamics of a relationship between two parties that is being exposed as unstable and fraying. If your relationship with your wife gets to the point that you are threatening to bring her to the Kohen and make her drink a cursed, bitter elixir, it’s not a good sign.
The waters too, were nursing an old hurt, as the Midrash teaches:
בראשית רבה ה:ד
אָמַר רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה, לֹא פֵּרְשׁוּ הַמַּיִם הַתַּחְתּוֹנִים מִן הָעֶלְיוֹנִים אֶלָּא בִּבְכִיָּה, הֲדָא הוּא דִּכְתִיב: מִבְּכִי נְהָרוֹת חִבֵּשׁ (איוב כח:יא).
Bereishit Rabbah 5:4
R. Berekhyah said: The lower waters separated from the upper waters with crying, as it says from the crying of the rivers He made solid ground (Iyyov 28:11).
According to the first chapter of Bereishit, God created all of the waters first and then separated them into upper and lower waters, that is the sky and the atmosphere on the one hand and all of the water that is found in oceans, lakes, rivers, and underground aquifers on the other. R. Berekhyah understands that this process was difficult for the waters, perhaps insulting to the lower waters in addition to being alienating. When David broke through the earth, the waters saw an opportunity to get back to the surface, to set aright all that had hurt them. On the one hand, the waters feel hurt. They are upset at having been separated and demoted. But on the other hand, the lower waters want to reunite with the surface and the upper waters. They want to be close to God in heaven.
This kind of complex dynamic of resentment and longing, jealousy and anger, coupled with a desire to reconcile, is also present in the dynamic of the Sotah, the suspected wife, and her jealous, suspicious husband. One of the curious moments in the story as told in Sukkah is when Ahitofel assesses the permissibility of erasing God’s name in order to calm the waters. He reasons that since God allowed His name to be erased in the Sotah ritual “in order to make peace between a man and his wife” and save the marriage, God would certainly allow it here in order to save the world. But how does Ahitofel know that the point of this ritual is reconciliation between two parties?
According to the Torah, divorce is enacted by the husband:
כִּי יִקַּח אִישׁ אִשָּׁה וּבְעָלָהּ וְהָיָה אִם לֹא תִמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינָיו כִּי מָצָא בָהּ עֶרְוַת דָּבָר וְכָתַב לָהּ סֵפֶר כְּרִיתֻת וְנָתַן בְּיָדָהּ וְשִׁלְּחָהּ מִבֵּיתוֹ:
When a man takes a wife and possesses her and it happens that she does not please him because he finds something obnoxious about her (ervat davar), he can write her a bill of divorce, hand it to her, and send her away from his house.
Although it is unclear what meets the standard of ervat davar, an inappropriate behavior, which would serve as grounds for divorce, it is clear that there is no court proceeding to determine that his wife has in fact done this behavior. A husband, even if he may not appropriately initiate a no-fault divorce, can do so functionally. If the husband suspects his wife of adultery, he does not need to bring her to the Temple—he does not even need to bring her to court, he can simply draw up a document and dismiss her. Because of this, Ahitofel understands that if a man brings his wife to a Sotah trial, it is because he wants to be with her, he wants her to be proven innocent. True, the man doesn’t trust her, and, true, their relationship is in a lot of danger, but there is a relationship to save.
And though the woman has no biblical right to initiate divorce, her hand is seen in the Sotah proceedings as well. In order for a woman to be subject to this trial, her husband needs to have told her not to seclude herself with a given man, not to engage in any suspicious behavior.9 If she nevertheless does so, then it is plausible to see her as doing so in order to antagonize her husband. As a cry for attention or as an expression of frustration. The midrash understands that the woman here is acting out of temporary insanity:
במדבר רבה ט:ו
וְכֵן רָמַז משֶׁה בַּתּוֹרָה עַל חֶסְרוֹן דַּעְתָּהּ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי תִשְׂטֶה אִשְׁתּוֹ, תִּשְׂטֶה, כְּתִיב בְּשִׁי"ן, לוֹמַר שֶׁאֵינָהּ מְזַנָּה עַד שֶׁיִּכָּנֵס בָּהּ הַשְּׁטוּת.
BeMidbar Rabbah 9:6
And so Moshe hinted in the Torah about her absence of full mental capacity, as it says, any man whose wife strays—tisteh. It is written with the letter shin, תִשְׂטֶה (as opposed to somekh, תסתה) to teach that she doesn’t engage in sexually inappropriate behavior until a madness (שטות) enters into her.
The midrash seizes upon the unusual spelling10 of the verb for becoming a Sotah, tisteh, because there is something unusual going on here, this behavior is a demonstration of crazed desperation.
On closer inspection we see that the Sotah process indicates that the jealous attitude of the husband and the defiant attitude of the wife are not merely negative behaviors. They hide much more complexity, because the jealousy and the anger are also a sign of investment. Just as the waters of the deep only threaten to submerge the earth because they want to reunite with the upper waters, sometimes what is behind a fight, even of the most bitter kind, is a desire to reconcile. Yes, there is a lot for this couple to work through, but there is also a lot for them to work with.
This can explain the curious behavior that Avot DeRabbi Natan11 attributes to Aharon HaKohen. The midrash there states that when two people were fighting, Aharon would go to each party and lie to them, telling each of them that he had heard that the other wanted to reconcile despite having actually received no such intelligence. Perhaps Aharon engaged in this behavior and didn’t think of himself as lying because he truly understood the dynamics of these relationships. Maybe he was right in the way that he read the anger that passed between these two people, assessing that it was really love in disguise, a desire to reconcile too profoundly buried by the hurt, fear, and anger that arrayed themselves on the surface of the conflict.
Often we get into conflicts that can feel intractable, filled with so much bitterness and enmity. The case of the Sotah should train us to look beneath the surface of negative feelings to find the investment that lies underneath the wounds. Sometimes, instead of responding as we want to or should, with vulnerability and curiosity, we respond with anger and jealousy, and let our pain dictate how we express ourselves. We should tap into this reservoir of strong feeling and see in it the passion that it takes to do the hard work of reconciliation.
1 There is a parallel story in Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:2, 29a, but there the connection to the Sotah ritual is less pronounced.
2 This is similar to the erasing of the curse into the water in the Sotah ritual.
3 Usually translated as “cubit,” an amah is the equivalent of about a foot and a half.
4 Tehillim 120-134.
5 In the measurements of the mishkan and the mikdash, an amah has 6 tefahim.
6 Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8 commenting on Shir HaShirim 3:11.
7 Her husband also brings a korban minhah (grain offering) as part of the ritual which she bears as part of the ritual. See BeMidbar 5:15,18.
8 BeMidbar 5:17, 23.
9 Mishnah Sotah 1:2.
10 The midrash will often swap sin/shin and samekh. Another example of this technique can be found in Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 100b, where the Talmud reads ישחנה of Mishlei 12:25 as יסיחנה.
11 12:3, version A.