Parashat Naso contains both the priestly blessing--integral to our traditions highest moments, including a wedding--as well as the ritual of the sotah, the unfaithful spouse. This juxtaposition might teach us that individuals and couples facing infidelity must lift up and be lifted up in order to learn to love and trust again.
Lifting Out of the Depths of Infidelity
“Most of us are going to have two or three … marriages, and some of us are going to do it with the same person. Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?”
This is how relationship therapist Esther Perel addresses couples struggling to cope with infidelity. She speaks plainly the truth that otherwise might go unspoken: affairs destroy relationships. But she also insists that new relationships can be formed—sometimes within the same couple—and that the power of love and renewal is never fully lost.
Esther Perel grew up in Antwerp, Belgium, raised by survivors of the Holocaust, and she studied psychology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem before making her way to the United States. A bestselling author and now the host of a new podcast called “Where Should We Begin?”, Perel works with couples all around the world to weather crises that threaten to tear their lives apart. She speaks and writes about topics as various as marital sex and the role of technology in relationships, and her forthcoming book, The State of Affairs, addresses head-on the topic of infidelity. A topic that this week’s Torah portion takes very seriously.
Numbers, Chapter 5:
If any wife has gone astray and broken faith with her husband 13in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps that fact secret … 14and a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about his wife … 15the man shall bring his wife to the priest. …
So begins the Torah’s description of the ritual known as sotah. Here’s the basic outline of what happens next: the priest prepares a mixture of sacred water and dirt from the Temple floor, the wife drinks the potion, and if “her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag” (Num. 5:27), then she shall be cursed. If not, she returns home with her husband.
There is much to say about this ancient and mysterious ritual. Indeed, it is so deep and complex that an entire tractate of Talmud is devoted to the subject. In most ways, sotah remains an artifact of women’s oppression, but the ritual can, in some aspects, be understood as a tool for restoring trust between a husband and a wife. This is where sotah and Esther Perel reinforce one another – both hope, in some way, to bring healing to souls deeply damaged by broken faith.
Depending on how one defines infidelity, estimates suggest that between 25 and 75 percent of people cheat. Perel’s basic approach to affairs is that they are acts of betrayal, and they are also expressions of longing and loss. She identifies three key elements of an affair. An affair includes  a secretive relationship,  an emotional connection, and  a sexual alchemy. Affairs look different for different people, but the breaking of a partner’s trust is key to them all.
Take the example of a couple married for nearly 40 years, with children and grandchildren. Such a couple is featured in Perel’s new podcast, and their story was recently broadcast on the radio program This American Life. Ira Glass, the producer of This American Life, summarizes their story:
Three years ago, the wife discovered that her husband had been cheating on her … widely and compulsively for most of their marriage. … One night stands and paying for sex. … They both said they’d been happy together for all those years in the marriage with a good sex life, and she wanted to stay together if it was at all possible.
As listeners, we become party to the couple’s troubled dynamics. The husband is so wrapped up in his own guilt and grief that he hasn’t made room for compassion for his wife’s feelings. In working with the couple, Perel slowly starts to crack through the husband’s self-centered blindness, forcing him to take responsibility for the pain he caused his wife. And the wife, for her part, needs to find a way to speak to her husband without losing control of her fury. She is right to be angry, but, Perel tells her, if she wants to be able to communicate with her husband, she has to work on quieting down and speaking without so much vitriol. Everyone agrees that she is the victim of a terrible betrayal, and yet there are still steps that she needs to take if she wants to build a new relationship with her husband.
Ultimately, Perel’s message to this couple is that they have to hold one another up. As with other couples who face infidelity, their first marriage is over. Each of them wants to commit to building a second marriage with the other, and that will require courage and strength from both of them.
Sometimes, of course, a couple can’t or doesn’t want to stay together. The first relationship is over, and there will never be a second with that partner. Once again, though, that doesn’t mean that trust itself must die. The hurt party can learn to love and trust again.
Individuals and couples dealing with infidelity are at a low point; their relationship lurches in the valley of deepest darkness. But there is always hope for renewal; there is the possibility of being lifted out of the depths and standing once again on solid ground. A couple that chooses to can often lift one another out of this valley; and those who choose to separate can find uplift through others who love and support them.
This rebuilding is never easy. Trust takes but a moment to destroy and years to rebuild. A therapist like Esther Perel can be very helpful for an individual or couple facing such a challenge, providing experience and insight into how best to recuperate from such a devastating loss. And there is, our tradition reminds us, another element essential in the rebuilding of trust: a loving and supportive community. On the individual and the communal level, the best way to recover from infidelity is by both lifting and being lifted.
This is a central theme of our Torah portion. It opens with an instruction to naso rosh, literally to lift up heads. This is an idiom for taking a census, but (as usual) there is a deeper meaning: in order to count someone, you must be able to look them in the eye and see them for who they are. That’s why the oldest Jewish wedding ritual is called nissuin, or “lifting up.” The couple lift one another up, pledging to support one another through all walks of life. And the Priestly Blessing, also found in this week’s Torah portion, asks that God literally lift up God’s face to us, establishing a relationship of strength and support through times of difficulty.
Aaron, the high priest, is given the privilege of bestowing this, our tradition’s most well-known blessing, to the people of Israel throughout the generations. Why him? Perhaps because Aaron above all “loved peace and pursued peace.” A midrash depicts his practice of speaking individually to people who are quarreling, helping each one find peace within himself so that they can find peace with one another. Thus, Aaron models for us our own role in the rebuilding of lost trust: We can run to our loved ones, support them in their time of need, and remind them that new relationships can be built. And of course there will be times when we ourselves are in need of someone to lift us up. At such moments, let us turn to the Aarons in our own lives, allowing them to say to us:
יְבָרֶכְךָ יְיָ וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ.
May God bless you and keep you.
יָאֵר יְיָ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶךָּ.
May the light of God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
יִשָׂא יְיָ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.
May God lift God’s face to you and grant you peace (Num. 6:24-26).
 This and the following paragraph draw from the TED Talk cited in note 1.
 Pirkei Avot 1:12.
 Avot de-Rabbi Natan 12:3. See also BT Sanhedrin 6b.
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