“The Hypocrite as Exemplar”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Naso, we encounter a very strange order in the topics of the text. The Torah in Numbers 5:10 speaks of a person who donates gifts or personal possessions to the sanctuary. This verse is immediately followed by the theme of a Jewish woman who is suspected of committing adultery.

This strange order of the two seemingly unrelated topics prompts Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105) to note on the verse, Numbers 5:11: “Ish ish kee tis’teh ish’to,” any man whose wife goes astray and is suspected of adultery against him, says Rashi, “If you withhold the gifts of the priests, I [G-d] swear by My life that you will have to come to the priest to bring him your wife who will go astray.” Rashi’s comment strongly implies that there is a direct relationship between a Jew who does not fulfill his charitable obligations, and the wife of that person going astray. This sounds very much like belief in the concept of direct and immediate Divine retribution for sins!

I imagine that support may be found in some Jewish sources for those who subscribe to the view of immediate Divine retribution. But, it is a very difficult and controversial position to maintain. What then is Rashi trying to teach us by referring to this quid pro quo–that if one refuses to pay his charitable pledges, that person’s wife will go astray?

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein (1860-1941), the famed author of the Torah Temimah, suggests the following connection. Because a husband who fails to pay his charitable obligations is obviously an evil person, he will probably act spitefully with his wife, deprive her of her needs, and thwart her desires. The anguished wife will resent her husband’s loathsome behavior, and will use his behavior to justify her own disloyal behavior. Elaborating further the Torah Temimah cites another rabbinic statement from the tractate Sotah 2a: “Ayn m’zav’gin lo l’adam ish’ah eh’lah l’fee mah’ah’sav,” a man gets the type of wife that he deserves according to his actions. Rashi notes that a modest woman is Divinely paired with a righteous man, while a wanton woman is matched with a wicked man.

I believe the commentaries are really articulating a very basic rule of human behavior. A husband who constantly preaches to his wife to be modest and chaste–to be an exemplar of righteousness, while his own behavior is callous and corrupt, is quickly seen as hypocritical. “Behave in a modest fashion,” he preaches to his wife, but when it comes to fulfilling his own obligations and commitments, he is totally unreliable. There is nothing worse than a hypocritical preacher. And those who receive admonishment from such a two-faced person develop great resentment, and often respond vengefully, directing spiteful and painful acts at the offender. After all, they have learned this behavior from the master himself, and now they have the opportunity to practice what they have learned so well!

While there is no absolute guarantee that being regularly exposed to the behavior of those who are exemplars of righteousness will perforce inspire truly ethical disciples, the chances of a negative exemplar negatively influencing those with whom he comes in contact is far greater.

And so, from a simple juxtaposition of verses in our Bible dealing with the issues of bringing one’s bikurim, the first-born fruits, to the Temple, and the verse’s location in the text immediately prior to the narrative of the woman who is suspected of being unfaithful, we learn a great deal about human nature. Don’t preach–but rather act properly! Providing a favorable example is far more impressive and effective than preaching.

May you be blessed.