1. Sin, keep your distance.
2. Leaving the Right Impression
3. "Go Around, Go Around!"
4. Torah Leads to Caution
Sin, keep your distance
"Why," ask the Sages, "does Scripture relate the law of the nazirite immediately following that of the "Sotah" (suspected adulteress)? This is done in order to teach you that whoever sees a Sotah in her degradation, should take upon himself a nazirite vow to abstain from wine."
Let us attempt to grasp as much of the meaning of the preceding explanation as possible. On the most elementary level, what we have here sound advice to a person who witnesses the fate of an adulteress: Behave with added stringency toward even permissible pleasures, for they may very well cause you to end up in a situation similar to hers.
The Torah tells us that when the Children of Israel left Egypt "the sea saw and fled." According to the Midrash, what the sea saw was Joseph's coffin. Regarding Joseph, the Torah reports that "he left his garment in her (Potiphar's wife's) hand and fled outside." The Midrash further explains that the sea "Nas Mipnei Nas," - it "took flight because he took flight." I.e. the waters of the Red Sea rolled back as a reward for Joseph's fleeing from the wife of Potiphar. This Midrash demands an explanation, for a different midrashic source informs us that Joseph was rewarded for every single limb in his body that stood up to the temptation of Potiphar's wife. When we place these two sources side by side it becomes apparent that though Joseph received reward for overcoming his evil inclination while in the presence of this married woman, the greater reward was bestowed upon him by virtue of the fact that "he fled outside." We see, then, that the most important step Joseph took in this episode, was that he made sure to distance himself from a situation in which he would be forced to overcome his evil inclination.
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, the "Ramban" asks why Joseph left his garment in her hand, since it is safe to assume that he was stronger than she. The illustrious commentator provides his own answer to this question. Yet, in light of what we have explained here, there is an additional explanation. It is important to realize that, as a result of his defiant act, Joseph become the epitome of the "Tzaddik" (righteous individual) in talmudic literature. Lest one claim, "But Joseph nearly failed. The only thing that stopped him from sinning was, as the Sages themselves tell us, the vision of his father which suddenly appeared before him." Know, that this near sin actually carried in it a grain of truth. The wife of Potiphar understood that she was destined to be connected to Joseph in some form or another; she was mistaken in believing that she, rather than her daughter, would become Joseph's match. More than likely Joseph too was aware of this unavoidable connection. Despite this, he managed to recognize the sin that was about to transpire - and fled from it. By virtue of Joseph's flight, the Children of Israel later merited the splitting of the Red Sea. The Sages wish to teach us the true saint is not he who, though face to face with temptation, succeeds in succeeds in overcoming his urges, but he who distances himself from such fixes altogether.
Leaving the Right Impression
"Whoever sees a Sotah in her degradation..." This is more than just advice to distance oneself from sin. Witnessing the degradation meted out against a suspected adulteress in itself demands rectification. Here is a woman who dared to be alone with a certain man after her husband warned her not to. It is not clear whether or not they cohabited. Yet, despite this uncertainty, she represents corruption - corruption to the point that the Sages advise one who sees her, to "take upon himself a nazirite vow to abstain from wine."
Here, we enter into another issue. On the one hand, the Sages scornfully ask the nazirite, "Is what the Torah forbids not enough?" The Torah prohibits some things and permits others. Do not go denying yourself pleasures that the Torah itself does not deny you. On the other hand, we are taught to "abstain from wine," and to "be holy - practice abstinence." The Torah commands: "Sanctify yourself through that which is permissible to you," i.e., one must abstain even from that which is permitted. How do we resolve this apparent contradiction?
To begin with, one must be aware of that which is written in Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzatto's exceedingly popular and essential work, "The Path of the Just," regarding abstention. A distinction must be made between advice for the masses and advice for individuals. There are events in life which call for rectification. What he saw left its mark. Every thought and action has an impact. The impression left can develop in a number of different directions, and in order that it develop in the right direction, the Sages advise abstention from wine; to refrain even from what in normal circumstances the Torah allows. This is reminiscent of Rambam's "middle path" approach. A person whose character tends to one undesirable direction, must push himself to the opposite extreme. Witnessing an unfaithful wife in her degradation leaves an inner blemish which demands rectification: abstention from wine.
"Go Around, Go Around!"
Why, though, should witnessing such an event inflict a blemish at all? The reason is that the sin of the Sotah is no less than the outer expression of a more serious inner moral deficiency. Every sin has a source, in the same way that a serious infection reveals itself in the form of a small wound on the skin's surface.
"When King Solomon married Pharaoh's daughter, (the angel) Gabriel came and thrust a reed into the sea from which the kingdom of Rome would eventually sprout." From this act, which can hardly be termed a "sin," the kingdom of Rome evolved - the fiercest of all nations to do battle against Israel. This reflects what we have been saying: Initially there is a slight blemish, even if only in thought. It takes time for it to finally reveal itself. We must therefore be exceedingly careful. Not without good reason do the Sages teach: " '[Do not stray] after your eyes' - this refers to heresy." The Sages are well aware that a mere gaze can eventually lead to promiscuity.
A wise person keeps his eyes to himself and knows better than to put himself into a situation which will demand overcoming his baser drives. Indeed, the Sages warn the nazirite: "Say to the nazirite: 'Go around, go around - do not come close to the vineyard!' " - It is forbidden for you to drink wine, so why should you pass by the vineyard? If you are wise, you will go around, even though the vineyard route is shorter, and you really have no intention of partaking in its fruits.
The Talmud teaches: Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rav that "a person should never put himself to the test, for David, the King of Israel, put himself to the test, and failed." [The Hebrew expression "Le'Olam," is used here for "never." Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook explained that when used by the Sages, the word "Le'Olom" indicates the sort of admonition that is absolute and without exception.] What happened was that David asked the Almighty: Why do the daily prayers make mention of "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob," yet not "the God of David"? [David, of course, is not interested in personal prestige. He apparently understands that each of the Patriarchs receives special mention in the prayers because God revealed himself in a unique manner via the experiences of each one of them. He asks concerning the "God of David" because he believes that the Almighty is also revealed to Israel through himself in a unique manner. In essence, David is correct. There is another factor, though, that David fails to take into account.] God responds: "Each of them faced trials before me, yet you were not put to a test as they were." "Just try me," says David. God agrees, and adds that he will even allow David an advantage that the Patriarch did not have: "I did not inform them that I was planning on having them face trials. To you I will even inform what sort of trial you will face: promiscuity." No sooner had this been settled than "David rose toward evening time... and he spotted a woman bathing on the roof..."
King David requests a trial, yet immediately stumbles. This is the story behind Rav's advice that "a person should never put himself to the test." No one of us can be certain of success -even with the luxury of advance warning.
The Forefathers themselves teach us that a person has no guarantee that he will not fall prey to sin - Jacob sensed that he might sin when he left Canaan. Even if one trains and works on himself, he should not place himself in a position in which one will have to face difficult trials. A wise person flees from such situations.
Torah Leads to Caution
How is it possible for a person to reach a level on which he altogether avoids trying situations? Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair said: "Torah leads to caution." The only thing which can truly cause us to be cautious is Torah. A person must reach a level upon which he relates to sin with fear. It is difficult to even imagine this because we have no experience with such people. It is told of Rabbi Tzadok that in a dream he requested to be granted the sort of fear of Heaven which Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the "Rambam" possessed. He was granted his request and the following day awoke to find that he could not stop trembling with fear. That night he requested that it be taken away from him. Such a level can only be attained if one views sin like a blazing fire. The proper way of viewing sin is like death - void, absolute nothingness. Attaining such a level demands hard work, and it is the Torah which presents man with a true picture of existence. Equipped with Torah, the Jew is capable of even more than conquering his base desires, he is capable of avoiding completely situations which call for overcoming such drives.
With penetrating insight, the Sages inform us that the decree to annihilate the Jews in the story of Purim was the result of the Jews' partaking in the feast of Achashverosh. What was the transgression here? They were not forced to perform any forbidden actions. The Sages teach us elsewhere that the mere act of drinking "brings a person close." Joining an evil person in meal - simply being together with such a person - makes an imprint. In fact, everything in life leaves an imprint: whether one sees something that is forbidden to see, is present in a place where it is forbidden to be present, or is close to someone with whom it is forbidden to be close. As we have said, a wise person does not allow himself to be in a place where he is liable to be negatively influenced.
The Talmud teaches, "A person who makes an effort to purify himself is aided; a person who desires to defile himself is allowed to do so." Man cannot purify himself without aid from above, but to defile oneself a person needs no help whatsoever - this can be accomplished with relative ease. Regarding the verse, "An elevated way of life for the wise, in order to turn from grave down below," Rabbi Eliahu ben Shlomo, better known as the "Gaon of Vilna," explains that in order not to be on the bottom, one must ascend, and the person who knows how to do this is wise. In order to ascend, to "be elevated," one must exert himself. What is it that allows a person to be elevated? Torah. The Torah elevates and uplifts man, and assures that he not even come into the proximity of sin. The further one is from sin, the better.