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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  ( has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.

What impact does seeing something have on learning about it later? 

An Ohio State University study split subjects into two groups. One group played video games that featured images of creatures they knew nothing about. The control group also played video games and did not see those creatures. The two groups then learned about the creatures that the first group already encountered. As a whole, the first group was able to more quickly learn about the creatures than the second group. The first group’s exposure to these creatures, despite them not even realizing that the exposure was significant, impacted their ability to learn about these creatures.

I think that this study might provide us with an insight to a curious statement in the Gemara about this week’s parasha.

The Gemara, Sotah 2a, comments on the juxtaposition of the laws of sotah (a woman suspected of committing adultery) with the laws of nazir (a person who chooses to abstain for thirty days from grape products, cutting their hair and coming in contact with the dead). The Talmud says that the reason the two topics are juxtaposed is to teach that anyone who sees a sotah in her disgrace (as she undergoes the rite of the bitter water) should renounce wine.

What is it about witnessing the sotah proceeding that would have such a negative impact on a person? All he/she saw was the process that leads to her drinking the water.

Rav. Chaim Alter Panet (1913-1984), in his book Tapuchei Chaim, suggests that being exposed to the sotah proceedings is a sign that something is off in one’s life. He notes the principle that is found in a number of Kabbalistic/Chasidic works that whenever one sees a sin being committed, it is a message that the observer has a trace of that sin. If someone sees the sotah proceeding, it wasn’t an accident. It was a message from HaShem that he/she has some connection to that sin and it is appropriate to take on being a nazir to neutralize that connection. 

In his book Darash Moshe, R. Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) comments about Yosef’s challenge with the advances of Potiphar’s wife. He notes there that the person who sees the sotah proceeding should really be drawn away from these desires after seeing her punishment. However, the reality is that people tend to focus on the action that led to the proceeding rather than the punishment and that is why the proper response is becoming a nazir — taking an extreme action in response.

Based on the above study, our minds have the ability to “ingest” information and run with it. By looking at an image, our minds can set up a construct to learn more about that image. Our minds also have the ability to take that image and create a narrative behind it that is so real, it can have a powerful impact on us. Unfortunately, this is something that media companies know about and employ on a regular basis to “educate” us and our children. The more exposure we have to behaviors and values that are contrary to Judaism, the less Jewish we slowly become.

If we want to take control of the situation, we need to be aware of the impact that these seemingly innocuous images and messages can have and we also have to be prepared to take on measures to increase our level of kedusha/sanctity.