Rabbi Yaakov Haber
Rabbi Yaakov Haber

The Sotah and the Purpose of Prayer

"V'nik'ta v'niz'r'a zara" -- "and she shall be [found] innocent and [subsequently] have children (5:28)." With these words, Hashem guarantees that a woman suspected of infidelity to her husband who is cleared of the charges through the test of the mayim ham'ar'rim -- the bitter waters -- will be blessed. If previously barren, she will now have children; if in the past, she had severe labor pains, now the birth-process will be easier (Rashi quoting from Sota 26a).

Historically, at least one woman threatened to utilize the sota process in order to be the beneficiary of this divine promise. The Talmud in B'rachot (31b) elaborates on part of Chana's famous prayer to the Ribono Shel 'Olam for children. "Master of the Universe," she cried, "you created in my body organs designed both to give birth to children and to nourish them; surely you did not create them in vain? If you do not grant me children, I will be forced to seclude myself with another man and go through the sotah process in order to force You to grant me children!" The Sages of the Talmud derive that Chana spoke audaciously to Hashem from the phrase: "Vatitpallel 'al Hashem" -- "and [Chana] prayed to [literally: on] G-d. (Samuel I 1:10)" The usage of 'al (on) rather than the more familiar 'el (to) indicates that "hiticha d'varim klapei ma'la" -- she thrust words up to heaven. Interestingly, though, Chana's prayer was answered immediately. Why would Hashem reward a brazen request with a speedy reply?

Furthermore, we find that Moshe Rabbeinu is described by the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 797) as being "maitiach dvarim klapei ma'la." In Parshat B'ha'alot'cha (11:2), after the episode of the mit'on'nim (complainers), the Torah relates the prayer of Moshe to stop the heavenly fire from consuming any more of B'nei Yisrael. "Va'yitpallel Moshe 'el Hashem." The Midrash comments that the word 'el should be read as 'al . This teaches us that Moshe "stuck words to heaven." Rav C. Y. Goldwicht zt"l, the founding Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh, under whom I was privileged to study, noted that this Midrash seems to be illogical. Why should we accuse Moshe of praying brazenly by making substitutions in the text, if the text itself does not require such a reading?

These questions lead us to a totally different understanding of the phrase "maitiach dvarim klapei ma'la." According to Rav Goldwicht, this does not necessarily indicate chutzpa. Rather, it refers to the highest level of prayer. G-d, our Father, who greatly loves his beloved People, who are referred to as His children, is also compared to a loving Husband who wishes to shower His kalla, Knesset Yisrael with goodness always (see Our Master and Our Beloved: A Dual Approach to Avodat Hashem, by Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky). However, in order to allow Man to better himself, He instituted a system of reward and punishment to motivate Man to strive for perfection. Just as punishing a child causes the father suffering, so too the Shekhina "suffers" when limitless goodness cannot be granted to all of Bnei Yisrael (see, for example, B'rachot (3a) which records the Shekhina's "cry" over the destruction of the Temple and Sanhedrin (46a) concerning His "cry" over individual suffering). Of course, it should be noted, as the Rambam elaborates at length in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah and in his Moreh Nevukhim, that human emotions do not apply to G-d, but nonetheless we use anthropomorphisms to describe the way in which G-d interacts with the world. When someone suffers, the most basic form of prayer is to ask G-d to remove the pain because it causes him (the person) pain. A higher level of prayer is to ask G-d to remove the trouble because that will remove the "tsa'ar haShekhina." "Maitiach dvarim klapei ma'la" means that the mispallel focused on praying for the "tsa'ar haShekhina." Chana's tefilla stressed the fact that Hashem's glory would increase if she were granted a child. Her current state of barrenness would cause a chillul Hashem, leading people to think that G-d's creations were not functional. If she were granted a child, all of the observers would become more aware of the fact that nothing in Hashem's creation is in vain. This would create a kiddush hashem -- a sanctification of the name of G-d. Indeed, Chana promised to dedicate the child's entire life to divine service, and, sacrificing the natural desire of a mother to take part in every step of her son's development, put the child under Eili, the Kohen Gadol's tutelage when Shmuel was but a child. This demonstrates the selfless nature of her request. In light of this interpretation, the phrase "'al Hashem" does not mean on G-d, implying brazenness toward Hashem, but rather for G-d, as she prayed in order to increase Divine Glory.

The same applies in the case of Moshe Rabbeinu's request. The Talmud in Sota (14a) states that when Hashem refused Moshe entry into Eretz Yisrael he stated: "I know that you only want to enter in order to receive reward for fulfilling the mitzvot ha't'luyot ba'aretz (commandments dependent on the land); I will view it as if you kept them." Now, this is very troubling. Antigonus from Socho teaches us in this week's Perek in Avot (1:3) that one should not serve G-d in order to receive reward. Surely Moshe Rabbeinu, the Master of all Prophets, would not serve G-d in this manner. Rather, Moshe Rabbeinu's goal in his prayer was to increase Divine happiness. Since G-d created Man in order to receive everlasting divine pleasure (see Mesillat Yesharim (beginning)), the reward granted to Moshe for the additional mitzvot he would be able to fulfill would cause nachat ruach to Hashem. From this, we can understand why the above-mentioned Midrash understood that Moshe was "maitiach dvarim klapei ma'la." The entire nature of his request to enter the Holy Land was G-d oriented, not self-oriented. Therefore, it is logical to assume that in the episode of the mit'on'nim, he prayed in a similar fashion. (See Ruach Chayim (3:2) for an elaboration of this theme.)

Clearly, this level of prayer that is totally dedicated to G-d and not for our own desires is one that is not easily achieved. However, we certainly can gather from the concept behind it the significance of selflessness. Thinking of the needs of other people and not just our own is the first step we can take to achieve this lofty goal. Indeed, some interpret that the reason that the commandment of loving a fellow-Jew as yourself is such a central pillar of Judaism (see Rashi to Vayikra 19:18 from Sifrei quoting R. Akiva) is that through recognizing the needs of others, we arrive at a fuller, more heightened awareness that we are not the center of the world. Ultimately, we become fully cognizant of the fact that G-d created the entire cosmos to allow Man to elevate his quintessential, spiritual nature by drawing nearer to Him, the true center of the universe.

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