“The Hypocrite as Exemplar”
(updated and revised from Naso 5763-2003)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Naso, we find that the topics of the Biblical text are in a rather strange order. The verse, Numbers 5:10, concerns 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 odd order of the two seemingly unrelated topics prompts Rashi to note on the verse, Numbers 5:12: אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי תִשְׂטֶה אִשְׁתּוֹ, 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 that man’s wife going astray. This sounds very much like belief in the concept of direct and immediate Divine retribution for sinful actions!

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 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 suggests the following connection. Because a husband who fails to pay his charitable obligations is obviously an evil person, he will probably act spitefully toward his wife, deprive her of her needs, and thwart her desires. The anguished wife will resent her husband’s contentious behavior and will use his behavior to justify her own disloyal behavior. Elaborating further, the Torah Temimah cites another rabbinic statement from tractate Sotah 2a: אֵין מְזַוְּוגִין לוֹ לְאָדָם אִשָּׁה אֶלָּא לְפִי מַעֲשָׂיו, a man gets the 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.

It appears as though 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 two-faced charlatans develop great resentment, often responding vengefully, directing spiteful and painful actions 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 been so effectively taught!

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 the Biblical text 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! Rather, act properly! Providing a favorable example is far more impressive and effective than preaching.

May you be blessed.