“The Fine Nuances of Jealousy”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Naso, includes the very challenging portion about the Sotah, the woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband.

The laws of the Sotah are recorded in the Torah in Numbers 5:11-31, and raise many issues concerning the Torah’s regard for, and treatment of, women.

The Torah states that any man whose wife goes astray and commits “treachery” against him, must bring his suspected adulterous wife to the Kohen–the priest. Although the illicit couple acted in a compromising manner by being secluded together after being warned not to do so, since there were no actual witnesses, the husband does not know whether or not an adulterous act was committed.

To determine her guilt or innocence, the woman is subjected to a grueling ritual. The priest uncovers her hair and prepares a special sacrifice for her made of barley. The priest pours holy water into an earthen vessel, places dust from the floor of the Tabernacle in the water, writes an oath on parchment, scrapes the ink of the parchment into the water and makes the woman recite the oath. “If you are innocent, then the waters that you drink will not harm you. But, if you are guilty, your stomach will explode and your thigh will crumble and you will be an anathema to Israel!” The woman would then drink the water.

The rabbis assert that if she had actually committed adultery, the woman would die as a result of the Divine test. If she was innocent, however, she would become pregnant, bear a child and the woman’s name would be cleared.

Despite the fact that there were no witnesses and the woman was not caught in an adulterous act, the Torah states that her husband was consumed with jealousy. The Torah, in Numbers 5:14 states, וְעָבַר עָלָיו רוּחַ קִנְאָה וְקִנֵּא אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ, וְהִוא נִטְמָאָה, אוֹ עָבַר עָלָיו רוּחַ קִנְאָה וְקִנֵּא אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ, וְהִיא לֹא נִטְמָאָה, the spirit of jealousy consumes her husband, and he is jealous of his wife and she had become defiled, or the spirit of jealousy passes over him, and she had not become defiled. In either case, the husband takes his wife to the priest to face the ordeal.

It is intriguing to note that the Torah states that the husband is “jealous” of his wife, rather than angry at his wife or vengeful concerning what she had done. The use of the word jealous, suggests that perhaps he is jealous of his wife because she had a secret admirer on the side and he did not.

What exactly does the term, “jealous” mean in this context?

Jealousy is often the result of a rivalry or a suspicion of unfaithfulness. In the Bible, we find that Rachel was jealous of her sister, Leah (Genesis 30:1), who bore several children while Rachel was barren. We also learn that Joseph’s brothers not only hated him (Genesis 37:4), but were jealous of him (Genesis 37:11). When Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp (Numbers 11:26-29), Joshua ran to Moses to demand that they be imprisoned. Moses cried out, הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the people of Israel would be prophets.”

The Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, 4:28, sums it up pithily by declaring, הַקִּנְאָה וְהַתַּאֲוָה וְהַכָּבוֹד מוֹצִיאִין אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעוֹלָם, jealousy, lust and desire for honor remove a person from the world. It seems as if jealousy is clearly a bad character trait, which has an extremely corrosive and destructive impact on all involved.

And yet, we find instances where jealousy is regarded as meritorious and positive. The prophet, Isaiah 9:6 speaks of קִנְאַת השם צְבָ־אוֹת, the jealousy for the L-rd of hosts, who detests the idolaters who desecrate the honor of G-d. The very heartening Talmudic statement (Sanhedrin 105b) provides further insight into jealousy: בַּכֹּל אָדָם מִתְקַנֵּא חוּץ מִבְּנוֹ וְתַלְמִידוֹ, a person is jealous of everyone, except of his son and his student. The Talmud statement in Tractate Babba Batra 22a, states that we are not concerned about placing a less advanced student next to a more advanced student, for fear that he (the weaker student) will give up, because קִנְאַת סוֹפְרִים תַּרְבֶּה חָכְמָה, jealousy (competition) between scholars increases wisdom.

The different aspects and applications of jealousy are quite instructive. Character traits are often regarded as either all good or all bad. Love and hostility, generosity and mean-spiritedness, pleasantness and anger, seem to be opposite extremes. We, too often, conclude that only positive traits should be embraced. Nevertheless, we find that even negative traits have their redeeming moments. King Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, reminds us that there is a time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to love and a time to hate, a time to make war and a time to make peace. Even when it comes to speaking ill of others, there are redeeming allowances. Consequently, Jewish law allows, indeed, even requires, that לְשׁוֹן הָרָע, L’shon Harah, evil speech, be spoken in instances where the negative information can save a person from a social or financial loss.

Judaism, very much advocates following the שְׁבִיל הַזָּהָב “Shveel ha’zah’hav,” the golden path or the golden mean. Life is rarely perfectly balanced. In most instances, jealousy and hatred are bad, and are to be eschewed. However, there are times when even these perceived negative characteristics need to be invoked.

It should be understood, that had there been no strong feelings between Joseph and his brothers, there would have been no jealousy. Similarly, with respect to the Sotah, were there no positive feelings between the accuser and his wife, there would be no jealousy.

The Talmud in Sotah 3a and 5b concludes that because of his jealous feelings, the husband had legally warned his wife (Naso 5761-2001) in front of witnesses to stay away from her paramour.

Ironically, jealousy, when “properly applied,” can be redeeming, cathartic and redemptive. If the husband of the Sotah did not love or care for his wife, he would have summarily rejected and divorced her. By subjecting his wife to the Divine ordeal that she willingly endures, both husband and wife hope to redeem their marriage that is being challenged. The jealousy actually revealed that there were true feelings on the part of the husband for his wife that motivated both husband and wife to endure the cleansing ritual of the Sotah, no matter how distasteful and embarrassing. Although, at first, it may have appeared otherwise, the husband was determined to prove his wife’s innocence beyond a shadow of doubt, in order to rehabilitate a relationship that had gone awry.

This is the Torah’s way of teaching that even so-called “negative” attributes and behaviors, such as jealousy can be redeeming and beneficial.

May you be blessed.