There is a blessing traditionally recited over the mitzvah of studying Torah. Many recite it in its short form, the conclusion of the six-sentence blessing formula asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu la’asok bedivrei Torah (“who has made us holy with mitzvot and commanded us to engage with words of Torah”). The blessing actually continues, however, with an additional request. In Kol Haneshama for Shabbat and Holidays, there is a page break before the next sentence, so it’s easy to miss it: veha’arev na Hashem Eloheinu et divrei Toratekha befinu … . Many siddurim (including Kol Haneshama) translate this plea as “Transmit to us, please, Hashem our God, the words of your Torah into our mouths … .”
Veha’arev is one of those awesomely ambiguous Hebrew words, whose root (ערב) is both the word for crossing or passing something, and also for “sweetness.” In the popular hymn Yedid Nefesh, for example, Kol Haneshama translates the phrase ye’erav (same root!) lo yedidutekha as “let your sweet love delight … .”
This phrase, therefore, could be (and sometimes is) translated as: “Sweeten, please, the words of your Torah in our mouths … .”
I often think about this double mandate as I study and discuss Torah, especially those texts that are not naturally sweet in my mouth and not naturally easy to transmit. While much of Torah is sweet to me, it is too easy to find the texts that are not; whether tedious (the first chapters of the book of Numbers), absurd (goat demons in Leviticus 17:7) or downright offensive (too many possibilities, but for a short list, the “abomination” of homosexuality in Leviticus 18:19, the misogynistic humiliation of the Sotah (suspected wife) ritual in Numbers 5, the genocidal fantasies of Deuteronomy 12.) When I or my b’nai mitzvah students encounter these texts, it can be hard to find the sweetness within them.
As enlightened as progressive 21st-century Jews are, we are not the first to find the contents of Torah problematic. One of my favorite chapters of the Talmud, Ben Sorer u’Moreh, Chapter 8 of the Tractate Sanhedrin, spends pages dealing with a concept described in Torah that our rabbinic sages found so problematic that they actually couldn’t conceive of its possible application: the “stubborn and rebellious son,” described in Deuteronomy 21:18-21:
If a person has a stubborn and rebellious son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Thereupon his town’s council shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.
The discussion in Sanhedrin opens on page 68b with this limitation: “As it is stated: ‘If a man has a son’ [therefore this applies only to] a son, but not a daughter; [to] a son, but not a [grown] man. A minor is exempt because he has not yet reached the age of inclusion in mitzvot.”
Over the next several pages, the sages of the Talmud add further requirements to the applicability of this law. For example, for this to be applicable, both parents must not only agree that their son is stubborn and rebellious, but they must tell their son the same things and even have identical voices, “As the verse states: ‘He will not obey our voices [kolenu]’ (Deuteronomy 21:20), [which indicates that they both have the same voice.] Since we require that they be identical in voice, we also require that they be identical in appearance and height.”
Several sages of the Talmud therefore conclude that there has never actually been — and never will be — such a case among the people Israel, and that therefore the only reason this is taught is “so that you may expound and receive reward.” The reward is not just in the world to come, but the here-and-now reward of provocative discourse. For even imagining the stubborn and rebellious son as an entirely hypothetical case, the rabbis manage to explore relevant issues, including the dangers of intoxication, how parental strife might adversely affect children and even the problematics of claiming a bride taken captive in war.
The sages refused to abandon the sanctity of the text by claiming it must be wrong. They also refused to abandon their moral sense that dictated the immorality of actually stoning a stubborn and rebellious son. Instead, they insisted that the circumstances of its application are so rare as to be nonexistent, but there is nevertheless merit to exploring the text. In so doing, the rabbis offered us a model for us all to follow about how we deal with troubling texts; how to simultaneously transmit, transform, and ultimately, sweeten texts that are hard to swallow.
We cannot leave our troubling texts on the shelf or try to dismiss them as irrelevant or backwards. To do so cedes those texts to be claimed by the most violent religious fundamentalists and forces us to abandon something that is core to our peoplehood. Instead, when we find a tension between the seeming meaning of the text and our current moral compass, we can refuse to give up on either. We can explore and find new meaning in the texts, beyond the peshat, the plain literal reading.
So no matter how tedious or gross or offensive a text appears, I always insist to myself and my students that we find some valuable exploration or understand it as a mirror reflecting still current societal challenges. I insist we always talk about Torah and the rabbis from a place of curiosity and compassion — not just because it would be meaningless to cradle the Torah scroll, read from it and then give a speech saying, “Torah is stupid and backwards and thank goodness we know better.” But because Torah belongs to us just as much as it belonged to the sages of the Talmud, and we deserve to find the enriching, challenging conversations that shaking sweetness from a tough text can allow.
How does this work in practice? When my students and I study the instructions regarding the Sotah, for example, the woman whose husband accuses her of adultery and brings her before the priest for a magical ritual to determine her guilt or innocence, it is important to first make space for the gut responses. They probably include: This is humiliating. This is misogynistic in the imbalance of the definitions of fidelity for men and women, in the scrutiny that men have over women and in the unilateral power that it gives a jealous husband to make his wife miserable. We acknowledge those objections, but we don’t stop there.
We look more closely; sometimes, Torah contains its own critique. These verses imply that the problem might be the husband and his out-of-control jealousy. The Talmudic tractate Sotah opens with that critique, placing limitations on the scenarios in which a man can subject his wife to this ritual, and even saying explicitly lekhatkhila (ab initio), it is forbidden for a man to place his wife into such a situation where she would be liable for the Sotah ritual. In so doing, the rabbis both shift the stigma from falling wholly on the woman to being shared by her husband, while simultaneously limiting the possibility of this ritual occurring. Looking at the Talmudic discussions invites us to notice how the rabbis themselves made incremental changes to mitigate the problematics of the Sotah ritual. We can have a conversation about the benefits and disadvantages of incremental change that might speak to the incremental changes and reversals that we see today around gender liberation.
We can go further and invite in the voices of modern commentators on the Sotah passage, especially female commentators. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat offers a psychological takeaway about the dangers of jealousy and poor communication, writing:
The barley flour brought as an offering in this instance is not anointed with oil, nor glorified with frankincense, because it is an offering of jealousy … . There’s a poetic kind of appropriateness to the lack of oil and spice. Jealousy negates what is rich and valuable and beautiful. When jealousy consumes us, we are dulled in a way that obscures the flavor of our relationships, even our relationship with God.”
Rabbi Barenblat’s words about the Sotah invite us to explore which more and less healthy ways we have now for working through our jealousy and mistrust.
Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun responds to a midrash about barren Hannah, who prays for a son in I Samuel 1. The rabbis imagine that her prayer is actually a threat to God: if she does not conceive, she will chastely seclude herself with another man. “Hannah forces God’s hand though a clever application of God’s own words. According to the Torah, a woman suspected but innocent of adultery will become pregnant upon drinking the bitter waters. The barren Hannah threatens God with a fail-safe plan: She will arouse jealousy in her husband by secluding herself with another man. However, she will not actually commit adultery. She will then be subject to the Sotah ordeal with an outcome predetermined by God’s own laws. She will become pregnant.” Rabbi Berkun’s insight encourages us to reflect on the creative ways that not just women but all manner of oppressed people find to navigate within and subvert the systems of their oppression in order to find their own thriving.
We will never want to revive the Sotah ritual itself. But by studying it rigorously instead of condemning it or leaving it on the shelf for something more palatable, we wind up engaging in valuable, timely conversations: the advantages and frustrations of incremental change; the ways that relationships can become stuck in jealousy and poor communications; the agency of oppressed people struggling within their systems of oppression. All of these conversation topics open up because we were not afraid to examine the Sotah ritual. And that is just one example!
This is not work we should do alone, but rather, in discussion with each other and with multiple generations of those who have come before us so that we can wrestle meaning out of our texts. We cannot ask of God or anyone else to do the work of veha’arev: sweetening, transmitting, transforming. It is our work, from every approach, in every generation. It is how we continue the ongoing, unfolding revelation.
 Translation courtesy of sefaria.org
 Sanhedrin 71a, line 13.
 Sanhedrin 71a, lines 14 and 15, attributed both to Rabbi Yehuda and to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
 Sanhedrin 70b.
 Sanhedrin 71a.
 See the description of King David’s behavior in Sanhedrin 107.
 Numbers 5:12-31.
 Sotah 2a.
 Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, “Bread and Bitter Water” at https://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2009/06/bread-and-bitter-water-radical-torah-repost.html
 Berakhot 31b.