A large chunk of this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Naso (Num. 4:21-7:89), is devoted to two of the more challenging institutions of Biblical law: The Sotah, or the wife suspected of adultery; and the Nazir. The Sotah’s husband brings her before the priest, who gives her a potion to drink which will prove whether or not she sinned. If she did, she dies a painful death. If not, nothing happens to her.

Rashi states that someone watching this ritual might be so shocked that they would take the vow of the Nazir, which immediately follows in the Torah reading. The Nazir is prohibited from consuming grape products (particularly wine, but applying across the board), cutting his or her hair, and being near a dead body. At the end of the minimum thirty period of their Nazir-hood, the Nazir brings an offering to the Temple.

Both of these sections are concerned with purity, a theme which the Torah explicitly mentions just before it introduces the Sotah:

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that has an issue, and whoever is unclean by the dead;  both male and female shall you put out, outside the camp shall you put them; that they not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.’ And the children of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the LORD spoke unto Moses, so did the children of Israel. (Num. 5:1-4)

The Sotah and Nazir sections both develop this theme of purity, each in their own way. The Sotah seems designed to respond to the discomfort of ambiguity, the difficulty of full trust in our most intimate relations. Ambiguity here is related to impurity, and the purity of the marital relationship is (or isn’t) restored by the clarity that comes in the wake of the ritual. The Nazir also responds to the ambiguity of relationships, though it focuses not on intimate relations but social ones. Growing one’s hair long, avoiding alcoholic drinks, and staying away from the dead (which were certainly more a part of everyday life in the ancient world than our own) all contribute to a general withdrawal from society, a withdrawal which is traditionally understood to be motivated by a quest for purity.

Yet the Rabbis are uncomfortable with both of these institutions, for understandable reasons. In both these cases, discomfort with ambiguity, the search for purity, chews at the fabric of society. In more modern terminology, social capital requires trust, and trust (or faith) requires an ability to live with the ambiguous. It doesn’t take faith to live in a world of certainty. As our world isn’t certain, our lives require faith.

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