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I have often, on these pages, written about how important it is to let go of the past, to allow ourselves and other people to move on. This is why gossip is so destructive: negative speech reinforces conclusions, making it hard for any of the parties to grow beyond their past.
But there are limits: certain kinds of problems we cannot, no matter how tolerant and forgiving we might be, simply accept and move on. These are not the kinds of problems that one can internalize, make adjustments, and keep living – these problems paralyze us, keeping us locked in a Hamlet-style morass of indecision and inaction. I speak, of course, of the same fundamental affliction that plagued Hamlet – indecision – caused by uncertainty, self-doubt, and soul-eating suspicion.
Is she faithful to me? That question, all by itself, makes it impossible for a marriage to grow. Without that kind of basic trust, two people cannot grow any further. If and when the basic fabric of our lives is in doubt, then people find themselves in a dangerous limbo. In Othello, Shakespeare explores the corrosive effects of suspicion within a marriage: Is my wife true? Asking that question, in Othello’s case, led to madness. And even in non-fictional characters, the mere suspicion that one’s partner in life is being unfaithful is paralyzing.
The crazy thing about this kind of problem is that it is not the knowledge that creates the impasse: it is the uncertainty. After all, if one is certain that their spouse is or is not faithful, then one can make plans, act accordingly, and move on. It is the doubt that gnaws at the soul, making a person second-guess themselves and everything around them.
Suspicion of infidelity is entirely disabling – at least in the sense of being able to spiritually grow. Of course, Shakespeare did not invent the idea of the suspicious husband. The Torah deals with this in Numbers 5:11–31. The process for resolving this uncertainty is thick with symbolism, and designed to put the husband’s mind at ease: either his wife has been faithful, or she has not. Either way, the suspicion is put to rest.
One peculiar thing about the ritual is when it is described to us in the Torah: in the middle of the national story between the counts of the priests, the Levites, and the national dedication of the tabernacle and resumption of G-d’s direct conversations with Moshe. And the lesson seems to be very interesting indeed: the Torah seems to be telling us that in order for G-d to be among us, to have a deep and meaningful relationship with the Jewish people, we first must have no doubt that our spouse is faithful. In other words, removing fundamental doubts within our personal marriages is a precondition for a spiritual connection to G-d.
The laws of Sotah, the suspected wife, are not alone in this section. They are paired with the laws of the Nazirite (Numbers 6:1–21). The Nazirite laws, well summarized by wiki, are the mirror image of the problem of a possibly-unfaithful wife. The Nazirite is a person who doubts themselves so profoundly that they need to go back to an Eden-style life (no grapes, no vanity, and no contact with dead people) in order to find themselves, to once again discern and determine whether they are, in fact, able to serve G-d, to find their own reasons for existence. The Nazirite is, in many ways, like the person who goes on a spiritual retreat both to test their resolve, and to find their path.
And when the status of the marriage is settled, or the Nazirite has come back from that spiritual retreat, then everyone involved can resume the relationship as described later in the same section of the Torah: dedicating the tabernacle, and reconnecting, as Moshe does, with G-d.
There are many other lessons in this, but most relevant to the idea of indecision is this: Relating to G-d in Judaism is not merely a matter of obediently doing G-d’s will. We are meant to be independent actors, freely choosing whether, and to what extent, we seek a connection with G-d.
More than this: the Torah is telling us that when there are impediments to our relationship with our Creator, we cannot merely wish them away, or ask G-d to make them disappear on our behalf. We are the actors: in order to move on, the husband has to tackle the suspicion head-on, and the self-doubter has to challenge himself to a period of Nazirism. Passive acceptance or wallowing in self-doubt don’t work, at least not if we want o make something of ourselves. When we are paralyzed, it is up to us to come back to the world, ready to move on and grow, partners with G-d in improving the world in and around us.