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[Dvar Torah] Naso

This week's Torah portion is Parashat Naso. It covers several different topics including the service of the Levites, the laws of the Sota and Nazir, the Priestly Blessing, and the gifts given to the Mishkan by the heads of each tribe. The name of the Parshah, "Naso," means "Count"; completing the headcount of the Children of Israel taken in the Sinai Desert. The law of  “nazir” is what I want to focus on.

If you look up the word “nazir” in Google Translate it will be translated as “monk” and there are some similarities. The nazir is a person who decides to take upon him or herself a vow to live a strict, holy lifestyle for a period of time. Chief of the nazirite laws is that the nazir is not allowed to drink wine, cut their  hair, or come into close contact with the dead. Unlike in other religions, the nazir does not abstain from marriage. In addition, the nazir would end her or his term by bringing a “sin offering” to the Temple in Jerusalem, as if they have done something wrong. Well known biblical nazirs were Samson and Samuel. 

Two questions that arise from this: If the nazir is so good and holy; 

  1. Why is it an optional and temporary way of life for individuals? It should have been mandatory for all!
  2. Why does nazir have to bring a “sin offering” at the end of the period as if he did something wrong?

The Talmud answers: Samuel said: whoever indulges in [voluntary] fasting is called a sinner. This is in accordance with the view of Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar Berebi, who stated … one who denies himself the enjoyment of wine is called a sinner, all the more so one who denies himself the enjoyment of other pleasures of life. (Talmud: Taanit 11a; Nedarim 10a)

The Rambam says: “Our sages directed man to abstain only from those things which the Torah denies him and not to forbid himself permitted things by vows and oaths. Thus our sages rhetorically asked: ‘Are not the things which the Torah has prohibited sufficient for you? [Why] must you add further prohibitions?’ ” (Hilchot Deot 31: 1) 

Rabbi Sacks explains: For these Sages, becoming a nazirite is … denying yourself the pleasures of the world. This means rejecting, or at least not celebrating, the world G-d created and called good. The phenomenon of the individual who withdraws from society and lives a life of self-denial is well known in many religions. Such people are usually regarded as holy. Judaism – according to Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar and Samuel – takes a different view. We serve G-d by enjoying the delights of life.

This further teaches us that Judaism and the Torah's goal is not for people to refrain from everything, Judaism is the exact opposite. Judaism tells us to get married, get a job, enjoy life. Judaism is very much about getting involved with the world and not distancing or detaching ourselves from it. The way to be holy  is by bringing holiness into the physical world, people that contradict that are counted as a sinner. Other beliefs mention that everything in life is a distraction: getting married is a distraction from G-d; eating is a distraction or engaging with other people can be a distraction that leads to being isolated. Judaism tells us not to be isolated. Judasm says the opposite - to bring G-d into our  everyday activities. It tells us to bring G-d  into the way we eat, into the way we conduct ourselves in our marriage - to bring G-d in to every part of our life.

So now we know why the nazir has to bring a sin offering. But now, we are even more confused - if being a nazir is so wrong, why is the Torah explicitly allowing it for individuals, even if only as a temporary state?

An interesting story from the Talmud gives us the answer: Rabbi Shimon the Just would rarely partake of the sacrifices of a nazirite. Once, however, he saw a particularly handsome young man who had taken a nazirite vow. He asked him why he had done so and the young man explained that due to his good looks (which he became aware of when he saw his reflection in a well), he was being tempted by his evil inclination (to become arrogant). To rise above the temptation, he took the nazarite vow. Rabbi Shimon praised him for his actions (Talmud Nedarim 9b). 

It seems that the nazirite is a holy calling for ghost individuals  who feel they are going off-balance and need specific treatment, like medication. Antibiotics might be helpful for a disease but taking it on a regular basis is harmful. It is a one-off treatment. Not a way of life. For if G‑d willed it as a way of life, He would have created a world with no wine and no pleasures. Rather, He wants us to live within His world and uncover the wonder and meaning that He embedded within it.

Shabbat Shalom

Hillel, Grade 9