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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Naso

Numbers 5:31

"And the man is cleansed of iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity."


And the man is cleansed of iniquity: RASHI: If the waters affected her (killed her), let him not be tormented, saying 'I was responsible for her death.' He is cleansed from punishment. Another interpretation: After he caused her to drink, she is permitted to be with her husband. And he is cleansed of sin. Because the Sota (before she drinks) is forbidden to be with her husband (but is now permitted).


Rashi has given us two interpretations. They differ in the translation of one Hebrew word. Which word?

Your Answer:

An Answer: The word "avon" is given two different meanings in Rashi's two comments. The first comment translates the word as "punishment" when Rashi says "he is cleansed from punishment." In his second comment this word means "sin" as he says "he is cleansed of sin." Now let us question Rashi.


Why does Rashi comment at all. What about our verse is bothering him ?

Your Answer:


An Answer: This whole section of Sota speaks of a woman suspected of committing adultery. She is either guilty or innocent. Why should the Torah speak of the man being guiltless? Of course he is guiltless, he hasn't done anything!

Rashi's comment deals with this question.

How does it?

Your Answer:


An Answer: Rashi informs us that the husband might possibly consider himself guilty, since, if his wife had committed adultery and he made her drink the Bitter Waters, she would die a painful, shameful, death. So, the verse tells us "he is cleansed of punishment." While he may have been instrumental in her death, he won't be punished, since it was the woman who committed adultery and she was rightfully punished.

The second interpretation tells us that he may now have relations with his wife. The law is that before she drank and her innocence had not yet been proven, she was forbidden to her husband; but now that she drank and survived the ordeal, this is evidence that she is guiltless and she and her husband may again be together.

Notice that there are two likely outcomes to the Sota ordeal: Either she is guilty and then dies, or she is innocent and lives and goes back to her husband. See how the two meanings of the word "avon" are appropriate, each in its own way, to these two outcomes. Either she dies and her husband is not to be punished for this, or she survives and returns to the status of rightful wife and thus her husband will have no sin when he is with her.

"Avinu Malkeinu", A New Insight

From the realization that the word "avon" can have two different meanings, either sin or punishment, we gain an insight into a familiar prayer. We say the "Avinu Malkeinu" ("Our Father, our King") prayer on Fast days and during the Ten Days of Repentance. In this prayer there is a phrase that is puzzling. It says:

"Our Father, our King, exterminate pestilence, sword, famine, captivity, destruction AND INIQUITY from the children of Your covenant."

The question is: What is "iniquity" doing in this litany of unfortunate events that can befall a person? Iniquity is a matter that a person does himself. The Sages say "All is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven." How, then, can we request that G-d "exterminate sin"? It is equivalent to asking G-d to take away our free will!

With our insight from this Rashi-comment, we now understand that the word "avon" here means "punishment" and not "sin." In this sense "avon" fits in perfectly with the other untoward events in the list. We beseech G-d to exterminate and eliminate punishment from our lives.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

We have good news to announce. The new Bamidbar volume of "What's Bothering Rashi?"is ready and should be in the bookstore soon. Look and ask for it.

"What's Bothering Rashi?" is a product of the "Institute for the Study of Rashi and the Early Torah Commentaries." 2 Wisconsin Circle, Chevy Chase MD 20815

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