If anyone…explicitly utters a Nazirite vow, to set himself apart for the Lord, he shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant…no razor shall touch his head…he shall not enter where there is a dead person, even…his father or mother, or his brother or sister…(B’midbar 6:2-7).
May the Lord bless you and keep you! May the Lord shine His face on you and deal graciously with you! May the Lord turn His face to you and grant you peace! (B’midbar 6:24-26)
A dark cascade of flowing locks surrounds your austere face
and passers-by regard you with both wonder and with scorn.
You have undertaken solemn vows – you may not tend the dead.
As you miss those closing moments, the truly righteous action
of accompanying your loved ones as they make their final way,
do you battle with your tears, and hope your sacrifice finds favor?
Do you believe that you are blessed, exactly as you are:
hair cropped or growing wildly, and drinking wine with relish?
You can become impure, and then be purified again, and
regardless, God will turn to you and grant you unearned gifts.
Parashat Naso details the controversial institution of the nazirite. The nazirite could be a man or a woman, but in the latter case needed the acquiescence of her father or her husband. This person took on, under vow, extra stringencies. He or she eschewed the drinking of wine or any other intoxicant (avoiding all products from grapes), abstained from cutting his or her hair, and was forbidden to approach the dead, even if it was a close family member (parent or sibling). This description addresses the temporary and not the lifelong self-imposition of nazirite status (like Samson). The minimum time period was 30 days, while the maximum was seven years.
In a blogpost on Parashat Naso in 2011, http://www.rebjeff.com/blog/naso-two-ways-of-seeking-gods-face, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser addresses the interesting proximity between the laws of the nazir and the priestly blessing of the people which follows immediately after. Reb Jeff wonders whether these might be two answers to the same question: How do we come to see the face of God?
Reb Jeff considers the burden of extra piety which the nazir takes upon himself. He suggests that if that is one way to feel closer to God, a more modest approach follows immediately with the priestly blessing. He says, “This is the other way of seeing God’s face. There is no need to make elaborate vows or to punish yourself with severe restrictions. All it takes is the willingness to be blessed – to allow God’s face to shine upon you graciously with no questions asked and no extraordinary demands made.”
An unattributed comment in Itturei Torah by Aharon Ya’akov Greenberg on the concept of grace in God’s blessing says, “He will be gracious – with an unearned gift, as it is written in Psalms 123:2, “So our eyes look to the Lord our God until He will be gracious to us.” ”
And the Chafetz Chaim used to say, “Lord of the World, even if, heaven forbid, Your children are not worthy of Your kindness, there is the aspect of grace “Vichunekha – He will be gracious to you” – give them an unearned gift, for that is Your special quality.”
In a commentary on the Parasha, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5502, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, notes that the Torah presents a “hierarchy of holiness” in three strata: the priest whose spiritual duties are described at length and include maintenance of the Mishkan and offering sacrifices; the Levite who also played a part in the service in the Mishkan; and Rabbi Shavit Artson wonders what of the “ordinary” Israelite? He asks, “How, in the biblical period, could an average Jew who was motivated by a burning piety, find a way to express that devotion and faith? Granted, the festivals were available to all, and the pilgrimages they stimulated were high points every year. But many of the rules of the Torah pertain only to judges and to the administration of the sacrifices by the kohanim.
“What of the Jews who wanted to do more, who wanted to make of their lives an offering of love to God, a symphony of holy deeds in the face of the sacred? For such a tzaddik, the Torah provides the institution of the Nazir. Noted scholars have commented on the parallels between the kohen and the Nazir, how both cannot touch alcohol during their moments of kedushah (holiness), how both are described as “holy to the Lord.” Neither can expose themselves to the remains of the dead, and in both instances, the head is the focus of sanctity.”
So Rabbi Shavit Artson suggests that becoming a nazirite was the way a biblical Jew might express his or her yearning to come closer to God.
The nazir has always been a source of great controversy. The Torah itself instructs us later that at the end of the period of the vow, the nazir must bring a purification sacrifice which implies some wrongdoing. Some commentators regard the nazir as a saint, aspiring to greater levels of holiness than the average person, while others portray the nazir as over-zealous. The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes that Simon the Just, a High Priest in the time of the Second Temple, refused to partake of the offerings brought by a nazir, deeming the vows to have been made in a rash moment of excessive guilt or enthusiasm, and therefore not whole-heartedly. The Rambam, who urged moderation in all matters, cites the Sage Rav who taught that in the World to Come, people will have to account for all the good food which God provided for their enjoyment but from which they abstained. (JT Kiddushin 4:12) This is understood to mean that taking on stringencies that deprive one of pleasure is frowned upon. This, according to Rabbi Shmuel, accounts for the sin-offering which it is incumbent on the nazir to bring – to atone for regarding the pleasures of God’s world as a source of evil and temptation. (Taanit 11a)
The Midrash addresses the location of the section on the nazir immediately following that of the sotah (the woman accused of adultery by her husband). The Midrash suggests that the potential nazir saw a sotah commit adultery while drunk, and so resolved to avoid liquor (B’Midbar Rabba 10:1) The Etz Hayim adds that the effect of seeing someone else ruin his or her life by succumbing to temptation, might propel someone who considers him or herself weak and impulsive, into setting extreme personal limits.
The Etz Hayim observes, “We today might also feel ambivalent toward the religious enthusiast. We can admire the fervor and readiness to refrain from ordinary pleasures, appreciating the person as a role model of religious seriousness. We can be grateful that there is a place in Judaism for such a person, and yet be concerned with the danger of extremism and fanaticism to which such enthusiasm can sometimes lead.”
In a commentary on Parashat Naso from 2014, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/naso/5774/can-center-hold, Marc Gary notes that in the previous parasha, we learn about the ideal holy community structured round the Mishkan, and in this parasha we learn about laws that show that the society has been corrupted by fraud, perjury, adultery, and finally, in the section before that dealing with the nazir, marital jealousy and suspicion. Gary cites Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein in his book, Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People, “[j]udging the camp [of Israelites] by what may be inferred from Naso, one would conclude that holiness cannot be achieved even when the people are encamped around the Mishkan, and that the only option is the nazirite ideal of withdrawal.” But Gary wonders whether that is what the Torah is really trying to impart. “In response to the dangers, temptations, and imperfections of this world — the real world in which we live — is the Torah trying to nudge us in the direction of religious extremes? In the realm of ritual practice, is more always better?”
He notes the ambivalence already described, both in the Torah itself and in the controversy ever since. He contrasts the Ramban’s stance, that the nazir is holy until he reverts back to living an ordinary life, and then needs to bring a sin offering, with that of the Rambam, whose view he expands, that “one should abide by the Torah, but not resort to religious isolationism or excessive ritualism. In his book, the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot De‘ot 3:1), Maimonides reiterates the point that a person should not withdraw from society or “inflict on himself vows of abstinence on things permitted him.” Religious moderation — “the middle road” — is the desired path.”
Gary continues, “In today’s Jewish world, Maimonides’s call for moderation in religious matters needs to be renewed. The Pew Research Center report on American Judaism last year shows that the extremes are gaining ground—those who reject religion entirely and those who identify as ultra-Orthodox… ”
Gary concludes, “What is at stake is not just the future of a movement or denomination; it is the reaffirmation of the importance of religious engagement with the world. Those who stand firmly in the center and travel with Maimonides on the middle road embody the notion that the best response to the injustices and moral deficiencies of our society is not the rejection of religious values or the obsessive focus on ritualism in a closed community, but rather a deep and faith-driven commitment to confronting the imperfections of our society based on the demands of a just God in a not-yet-just world. As JTS Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel famously remarked, “Our concern is not how to worship in the catacombs, but how to remain human in the skyscrapers.” “