(Numbers 4:21 – 7:89)
What is the most beautiful passage in the Bible? The startling simplicity of the Creation narrative? The revelatory power of the Burning bush? The redemptive ecstasy of Miriam’s song on crossing the Red Sea? No, it’s the section in this week’s parsha where a wife who’s accused of adultery has to drink some “bitter waters” made from dust from the floor of the Sanctuary mixed with some holy water and if her belly swells and her thigh rots then she’s clearly as guilty as hell, which most of them are. I put it to you that the Bible doesn’t get much more beautiful than that.
And by the way there’s nothing wrong with my attitude to women. I don’t judge them by appearance, as my ugly therapist Ranaana maintains. I’m not a woman-hater, as she would have it, or, as she puts it in therapy-speak, “a bearded spew-inducing sexist pigwit”. For example, I have great respect for the nurse called Patience who set my broken arm after I fell from the church tower in Stockwell, even though I couldn’t understand a word she was saying (I’m not racist). I also like Carol Vorderman whom I recently saw in the supermarket and followed home and there’s nothing wrong with that even if we did get into a slight physical disagreement when I tried to put a mezuzah on her door (I don’t care what she says, I’m convinced she’s Jewish). Still, there was for the only thing worth watching on Countdown to tell me to Consonant-Vowel-Consonant-Consonant Off.
But back to the test for adultery by “bitter waters”. It’s such a quick clear either/or, either your thigh rots away or it doesn’t, but no, my wife and her lover the builder who’s a woman prefer a lengthy legal battle with high-paid lawyers and unpleasant allegations about a certain Rabbinical person and a certain attractive actress who’s such fun to be with just as a friend who have, through force of circumstances, both been sleeping in the synagogue. But, dear wife, the Torah says: “In righteousness shall ye judge thy neighbour”, especially if thy neighbour’s been sleeping in the men’s section and the actress has been sleeping upstairs in the women’s section and is it his fault that she doesn’t wear pyjamas and that if you crane your head right back and to the left you can see her reflection in the Everlasting Light?
It’s clear that some people haven’t read the thoughts of Shamai on another passage from this week’s parsha: the priestly blessing over the congregation. He tells us that even when we’re afflicted with suffering and doubt and a compound fracture in three different places, we must seek to emulate G-d. Just as we beseech the L-rd to “make his face shine upon you”, so we must try to make our face shine upon those we meet, even irritating ones with the voice of an amplified shofar and the complexion of a gefilte fish, like the builder who’s a woman.
Of course, it’s easy to shine your face at someone when their face is lovely and shiny, with luscious lips and shimmering blue eyes that you always compare to the Red Sea, saying how you’d like to part them and walk through each parted pupil bare-footed with your ox and ass and all your chattels which she found a little bit hideous but is actually really a lovely compliment. You reach out to her, just like the priests reach out to the congregation when giving their blessings, though not with your hands in the shape of a letter shin like in the blessing, because she’d find that even weirder than the parting of the pupils. You house her when she is without shelter, you clothe her when she is naked (not literally) and then she says she’ll get you a tea whilst you’re waiting in Casualty and that’s the last you see of her.
I know we should rejoice in Your Torah when we rise up and when we lie down, but sometimes even the idea of a certain person’s thigh rotting fails to cheer me up. Sometimes, yes, sometimes I miss my wife.
This article first appeared in The Jewish Chronicle.