Sermon Notes 07/07/12 - Balak

When Less is More

If you'd wanted to hear my sermon, you'd have come to Shul, but...

Actually, I didn't give a sermon this week as my community had the privilege of hosting Professor Elliott Malamet from Toronto, who delivered three fascinating and thought-provoking talks - see here for details.

Yet the story of Bilam's donkey, which appears in this week's Torah reading, offers a further opportunity to explore the Rambam's approach to certain challenging biblical texts.

While it is almost universally assumed that the narrative describes an actual, physical event, the Rambam (Maimonides) asserts that it was a prophetic vision - i.e. it happened only in Bilam's mind but was not observable by an outsider. As he explains:

The entire [episode] of Bilaam's journey and the words of the donkey - all were a prophetic vision. (Moreh Nevochim 2:42)

Indeed, for the Rambam, 'everywhere that the appearance or speech of an angel is mentioned, it is always a prophetic vision of dream, whether this is explicitly mentioned or not... Know this and understand it extremely well'. (ibid.)

So, frustratingly for literalists, the Rambam contends that there wasn't a talking donkey in any 'real' sense. However, this appears to be contradicted by an explicit Mishnah, which sites the 'mouth of the donkey' within a group of specially-created items:

Ten things were created at twilight on the [first] Friday evening... the mouth of the donkey.. (Mishnah, Avot 5:6)

Since the other items in the list - including the staff of Moshe, the manna and tablets of the covenant - were clearly real, physical entities, this strongly suggest that the 'mouth of the donkey' - surely a euphemism for it actually speaking - was also 'real'.

The Chief Rabbi once suggested to me that the Rambam meant that Bilam's journey actually took place; when Bilam hit the donkey, he heard its braying as human speech. It may be that the capacity for this to happen at the right moment in history was created on the first Friday afternoon in history, allowing the Rambam's non-literalist approach to square with the Mishnah.

Rambam's certainty that human beings cannot detect angels, and consequently, the 'talking donkey' must have been a vision, is consonant with his insistence that nothing in existence other than God is inherently holy. It also fits with what I would term his 'rational minimalism', the contention that God is as economic as possible when He must interfere with the natural running of the world, something I've mentioned before here. In practice, this means that God uses the minimum intervention to achieve his desired outcome - in this case, since a vision could suffice to rebuke Bilam and demonstrate that he was merely a pawn in the hand of the divine, no more miraculous event needed, or indeed, could have, occurred.

This approach remains unpopular in a Jewish world that often assumes that 'more is more' both in practice and theory. I've noticed that many speakers (and, it would seem, their audiences), assume that if two stories can illustrate a point then eight must do so better. From this perspective, when dealing with theological matters, the more overt the divine intervention, the greater the God.

The Rambam's approach challenges the validity of this view. For him, only a God who can change the course of history with the slightest intervention is truly omnipotent - 'less is more'.

Sermon Notes - Shavuot 2012

Revelation, Multiplicity and Receiving the Torah

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

Shavuot is light on ritual but affords a weighty unique opportunity in our annual festival cycle to consider how a modern community understands its relationship with the Torah and Judaism itself.

The Talmud[1] mentions a perplexing aspect of the Torah system – the existence within it of conflicting views on almost every topic.  How, asks Rebbi Ela’zar ben Azariah, can a single Torah include ‘those who forbid, those who permit, those who invalidate and those who sanction’?  This question uncannily presages a modern frustration with Judaism – why can’t the rabbis agree with each other?  Rebbi El’azar offers a fascinating allegorical response – ‘make your ear into a funnel and acquire an understanding heart for yourself’[2] to accept what may be the most difficult facet of the Torah – its multiplicity.  A full and sophisticated understanding of revelation involves accepting that divergent, even conflicting, views can co-exist within a single revelation.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, the Kotzker Rebbe, asks why the festival liturgy describes Shavuot as the time of the ‘giving of our Torah’ rather than the time of the ‘receiving of our Torah’.  He answers that only the giving is universal, hence its inclusion in a communal prayer; the receiving of the Torah, however, is an individual experience – the divine perceived through the lens of one’s own vision and perspective.  And while, of course, the Torah is not infinitely elastic, the voice of God is certainly heard differently by each of us.  It is only this that enables members of a modern and diverse community to be transformed by an ancient revelation, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, the mundane into the inspirational.

Professor A.J. Heschel notes that ‘A Jew without the Torah is obsolete’.[3]  It is neither synagogue attendance nor even observance which guarantee that our Jewish lives remain vibrant and future-proof, but Torah.  Yet Heschel points out that revelation must also instil ‘a new creative moment into the course of natural events’.[4]  Shavuot is not just the anniversary of Sinai; it is also the time of year at which we should affirm our belief that only an authentic, multi-chromatic Torah will be relevant for those grappling with the voice of the divine.

Respect for a range of equally authentic positions lies at the core of our approach to Judaism.  When the Talmud allegorises the ultimate reward of the righteous, it describes a ‘dance circle’ in the Garden of Eden: God ‘sits’ in the centre while the righteous dance around Him ‘pointing’ in His direction.[5]  A circle is a collection of points equidistant from a single locus; each dancer occupies a different position from the others, but all are equidistant from God.  The righteous perceive God at close quarters, while simultaneously authenticating the approaches of others.  And, of course, the righteous are not stationary – instead, they move around the circle, enjoying not just their own view of the divine, experiencing and celebrating the perspectives of each of the other dancers.



[1] TB Chagigah 3b

[2] Ibid.

[3] A Preface to the Understanding of Revelation

[4] The Moment at Sinai

[5] TB Ta’anit 31a

The Orthodox Family of the 21st Century: A Symposium

Jewish Action: The Magazine of the Orthodox Union (USA)

Spring 2012

My contribution follows; full article here

While statistics are not available, it seems that there is a dramatic increase in divorce in the Orthodox community, particularly among young people. Why do you think this is so? What can be done?

Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski

It is easy to blame the zeitgeist for the growing divorce problem. We inhabit a responsibility-adverse, “throw-away” society, one which discourages people from dedicating themselves to long-term relationships and from remaining committed to them when problems arise. And while increased acceptance of divorce has its positive sides, it also deters couples from working on their marriages when the going gets tough. Combined with a predominantly casual attitude toward sexuality and palpable scorn for stable, “boring” monogamy, contemporary society offers a toxic milieu within which it is challenging to maintain even robust marriages.

Yet over-focusing on the influence of secular mores prevents us from identifying and addressing causes of marital discord that originate from within the Orthodox world.

There are positive aspects of the “shidduch system,” yet its misuses contribute to poor relationships and early breakups. Unfortunately, some parents seem to view a shidduch not only as an attempt to find a lasting, happy match for their offspring, but also as an opportunity for social and economic advancement. Often in collusion with their children, they judge a potential mate based on genealogical, financial and even sartorial or other superficial criteria, instead of focusing on core qualities such as stability, personal happiness, commitment-capability, honesty and character refinement. While of course everyone pays lip-service to the importance of these qualities, in reality they are commonly overlooked in favor of a “good catch”—a shidduch that meets the approval of their peers. The solution is obvious, but hard to implement as it involves a paradigm shift at a number of levels. Educating our young people about real relationships would be a good start.

Furthermore, many couples date too few times prior to getting engaged. Most people cannot make a competent decision about whether they wish to share every aspect of their lives with a prospective spouse without spending extended periods together in a variety of settings. People and their lives are complex; “unpacking” them takes time and cannot be rushed. Yet social expectations and pressure from parents or shadchanim may drive a young couple to decide quickly, frequently leaving a whole raft of issues undiscussed, personality traits unexplored and behavior-patterns undiscovered—all “time-bombs” that can, and sadly often do, detonate later on and destroy the marriage. And while I understand the genuine religious and other concerns that motivate the desire to “get it over with quickly,” they must be resisted if we are to prevent many quite unnecessary breakdowns and their attendant long-term misery.

And speaking of potential “time-bombs,” numerous young people plunge into marriage despite unresolved emotional, sexual, familial and religious hang-ups. Some are cognizant of these issues but date anyway because of social pressures. Others imagine that marriage will solve their problems; yet others are blissfully unaware of them even though they may be painfully evident to others. This is a recipe for disaster, since inevitably these issues will surface and destructively affect the marriage. And even if the union survives, it is certain to be rocky and challenging. Again, the solution is obvious: sort out your problems before getting married and remember that while singlehood can be painful, being trapped in a bad marriage is always worse. Marriage never solves these problems. Yet the stigma associated with mental health and other personal problems and the pressure felt by parents to get their children “married off” young often prevail.

Other causes of divorce not confined to the Orthodox community yet prevalent within it include: poor communication; lack of those who “role-model” functional, happy relationships; unwelcome family pressure to conform or perform; absurd expectations in terms of personal happiness and finances. The latter is especially acute in those parts of the community where couples expect to marry young, have large families, live in an expensive middle-class neighborhood and pay crippling tuitions, yet remain students well beyond marriage with often weak earning-potential. These pressures can destroy even the healthiest relationships.

Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski is the rabbi of the Golders Green Synagogue in London. He earned a PhD from the University of London on the topic of Chassidic hermeneutics, and is the author of several books.

To hear an interview with Rabbi Belovski, please visit Savitsky Talks at http://www.ou.org/life/relationships/dating/why-are-more-orthodox-couples-getting-divorced/. Savitsky Talks is a weekly twenty-minute audio program exploring topics in Jewish Action and other topics in contemporary Jewish life.

Sermon Notes 28/01/12 - Bo

Of Darkness, Rationalism and Jewish Leadership

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

The last three plagues are described in the first part of this week’s parashah.  A controversial approach to the ninth plague – darkness (Shemot 10:21-23) – appears in the Torah Temimah.  This work, published in 1902 by Rabbi Baruch ha-Levi Epstein of Pinsk, comments on selected midrashim verse by verse.  Analysing a midrash which claims that the darkness was ‘as thick as a coin’ (see Yalkut Shimoni to Tehillim 105), Rabbi Epstein says the following:

Were I not afraid to produce an entirely novel approach, I would have said that the darkness was not in the air, but in the Egyptians’ eyes – a kind of cataract obscuring their pupils.  The rabbis point out that this cataract was tangible and was ‘as thick as a coin’. (Torah Temimah to Shemot 10:21, paraphrased, Hebrew text below)

Whenever a rabbi introduces an observation with the phrase ‘were I not afraid… I would have said’, he knows that what he is about to write will is contentious.  Indeed, some critics viewed Rabbi Epstein’s understanding as an unacceptable deviation from ‘normative’ interpretation; to this day, some ultra-conservative groups treat the entire work with suspicion.

In fact, Rabbi Epstein was merely following a well-trodden, but unpopular, mode of interpretation, one based firmly in the writings of the Rambam:

It is incumbent upon us to combine Torah and rationalism, to explain matters as naturalistically as possible.  Only when something is absolutely inexplicable by natural means, should one say that it is a ‘miracle’. (Rambam, Epistle on the Resuscitation of the Dead, section 2, paraphrased, Hebrew text below)

The Rambam means that one should only resort to a complex – supernatural explanation – of any event described in the Torah – when all simpler – read: naturalistic – explanations have been exhausted.  I would term this a Maimonidean version of Occam’s Razor.

While of course, the opportune appearance of targeted cataracts can only be attributed to divine intervention, Rabbi Epstein’s explanation minimises the miraculous nature of the plague of darkness by rationalising it as far as possible.  Apparently, this was something that Rabbi Epstein’s detractors found unforgivable.

This long-forgotten controversy highlights the tension between rationalistic and super-rationalistic approaches to Judaism that have existed since long before the publication of the Torah Temimah.  It lies at the heart of the radically different world-views of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Levi’s Kuzari and the Rambam’s Moreh Nevochim – Guide for the Perplexed, and continues today.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the rationalistic approach to Torah interpretation and Jewish thought is in retreat and has gradually ceded to the super-or even anti-rationalism which now characterises much of Orthodox society.  This is evident in every area of Jewish life: the content of popular works; the adulation of leaders; the immense growth in segulot – spiritual remedies of the ‘give your money to this cause and you’ll find a spouse, have a baby, be cured of an illness, or make a living’ variety.

There are too many negative spinoffs of this phenomenon to consider in a short space.  They include the unwillingness to contextualise talmudic texts describing the observable universe and the subsequent rejection of the need to reconcile Torah with scientific discoveries, a naive, romanticised understanding of world history and a hagiographic approach to the lives of Jewish leaders.  All of these and others make some prevalent forms of Jewish life deeply unattractive to thinking people and mean that there is little opportunity for those already within the system to find answers to genuine questions.

But a particularly worrying consequence of the super-rationalistic approach is the manner in which leaders of some parts of the community are appointed and the uncritical way in which their performance is evaluated.  Sadly, rabbinical leaders are not always chosen because they have the appropriate qualifications, can identify with the lives and concerns of their charges and will fight for them.   And when they remain silent in the face of injustice, as has happened too often in recent times, their disciples are willing to attribute this to the rabbis’ higher knowledge or holiness rather than to a failure of leadership.   And while, of course, every system of governance can be abused by its leaders, Jewish leadership should be a beacon of good sense, fairness and transparency, not words one would immediately associate with some contemporary leaders.

A return to rationalism, a neglected, but bona fide Jewish alternative, is sorely needed, especially in Israel.  It’s not the answer to every problem the Jewish world faces, but it will go a long way to making authentic Orthodox Judaism more attractive to intelligent people, better able to face the social and intellectual challenges of living a religious life in a modern world, and, perhaps most importantly, more capable of producing leaders who will actually lead our communities. 

תורה תמימה, שמות י:כא

ומבואר במדרשים שהחושך כעובי דינר, וכלל הענין מופלא מאד, דמה שייך להתפיס שיעור ממשות בחושך, וגם צ"ע דלפי פירש"י שהיה כל משך המטל"ע כולו לילה ולא היה יום כלל א"כ נשתנו סדרי בראשית , וזה קשה מאד שהרי הקב"ה הבטיח לנח ולבניו ויום ולילה לא ישבותו.

ולולא מסתפינא להמציא דבר חדש מאד ה"א דענין החושך היה לא באויר רק בעיני האנשים, והיינו שהיה מתוח תבלול על אישון העין, ואמרו חכמים שאותו התבלול היה נמוש ביד וגם היה כעובי דינר, וניחא הכל.

רמב"ם, מאמר תחית המתים, קטע ב'

ואנחנו נשתדל לקבץ בין התורה והמשכל וננהיג הדברים על סדר טבעי אפשר בכל זה, אלא מה שהתבאר בו שהוא מופת ולא יתכן לפרשו כלל אז נצטרך לומר שהוא מופת.

Why Are More Orthodox Couples Getting Divorced?

Belovski interviewed by Steve Savitsky of the OU

Jan 2012

A society which discourages commitment. A too-short dating process. Unaddressed personal issues. High financial expectations. Steve Savitsky talks with Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski, Rav of Golders Green Synagogue in  London, England, about dating and marriage – and why they sometimes end in divorce.

Listen here

Sermon Notes 07/01/12 - VaYechi

Where are the Leaders?  Shoftim, Shotrim and the Current Crisis

 If you’d have wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but…

I’ve just spent a wonderful week in Israel with our third daughter, Tomor Chemdoh, as part of her Bat Mitzvah celebrations.

During our stay, there was a mass rally in Bet Shemesh against the behaviour of a particular group of the Charedi locals.  Ostensibly provoked by an incident in which a man spat on a school-girl because he disapproved of her attire, it was really the result of months of tension generated by a sect of zealots who often use violent means to impose extreme standards of modesty on the rest of the community.  The actions of these self-styled ‘Sikrikim’1 have distressed and infuriated their victims and have attracted international interest (the rally was the second item on the BBC News website the following day).  They have also led to pointed questions about the direction and future of the Charedi communities, and indeed the entire Orthodox world.

Some people are exercised by the fact that the frum community has spawned these extremists, but I am not.  Every group gives rise to a certain number of crazies who will attempt to attain their narrow, dysfunctional goals by whatever means, irrespective of whom they hurt or the damage inflicted on the society they insist they are protecting.  I am much more troubled by the failure of the community, particularly its leaders, to deal properly with the extremists.  A society is judged not by whether it produces radicalised lunatics, but how its leaders respond to the danger that such people pose.  By that measure we are currently failing.

The Torah articulates this clearly: ‘You shall appoint shoftim ve-shotrim - judges and enforcers - in all of your gates’ (Devarim 16:18).  A Torah-based community can only function successfully when the judges - its religious leaders, and the enforcers – its police, work together to ensure that law and order is maintained: protecting the weak and dealing appropriately with troublemakers whose behaviour threatens to destabilise society or oppress groups within it.

While in modern Israel, the religious leaders are not the lawmakers, nor are the police their agents, both have an important role to play in eliminating the canker of extremism and the primitive and often deeply misogynist behaviour (many of their antics are geared to eliminating women from the public sphere) that often follows in its wake.  In a religious society, especially a contemporary Charedi one, the rabbinic leaders are alleged to reign supreme, yet when it comes to the Sikrikim, most rabbis have either been silent or have issued feeble statements that they cannot do anything to restrain them.2  The police have also claimed that they cannot control the zealots.  Yet the Torah expects the rabbis and the police - the shoftim and the shotrim - to work separately or in collaboration to facilitate a just religious society; right now this means ridding it of these sectarians.

Not that this vindicates their lack of response, but I suspect that the police are concerned that their intervention will be counterproductive; there have been statements to this effect.  Like other volatile groups, the extreme edge of the Charedi world is easily radicalised; indeed, there were at least two sizeable counter-demonstrations soon after the Bet Shemesh rally.

As for the rabbis of some Charedi communities, I regret that I must interpret their impotence in one of the following ways: a) they fear the physical consequences of speaking out3 against the Sikrikim; b) they are apprehensive about the professional consequences of condemning them - i.e. they risk being marginalised and losing their own authority; c) like the police, they believe that their intervention will fail or even exacerbate the problem; d) they actually approve of the Sikrikims’ objectives in ‘purifying the camp’, if not the means they use to achieve them.  Unfortunately, it is hard to escape the conclusion that silence from a rabbinate that has vociferously declaimed on such diverse topics as army service, concerts, mixed-seating on buses, the denier of hosiery, secular education, mobile ‘phones and the validity of scientific enquiry, may indeed indicate tacit approval.  I hope that I’m mistaken about this.

Yet whichever of these is correct, and it is probably a combination, the picture is not pretty.  Leaders who are frightened of their constituents or are too weak to act decisively against a public perversion of Jewish values and the consequent mass Chilul HaShem are part of the problem, not the solution.  It is fascinating, albeit predictable, that even in a community where Da’as Torah4 supposedly determines the ‘correct’ view on every topic, presumably including the appropriate way to behave towards those with whom one disagrees, the leaders cannot really control extremists.  Perhaps this exposes something about the Charedi world that is obvious in more democratic societies - despite appearances to the contrary, the authority of the leaders derives from the will of the people.

Leaders must speak out against injustice, irrespective of the personal cost.  They must teach that the ways of Torah are pleasant and peaceful, that Torah societies are compassionate and tolerant, and a light to, rather than a blight on the modern world.  They must show that the Torah demands high standards of interpersonal conduct from its adherents and that its leaders harshly condemn and punish those who distort its message.

The fact is that in the case of the Sikrikim, there is safety in numbers: there are hundreds of prominent Charedi rabbis - yeshivah deans, halachic decisors and Chassidic Rebbes.  If they would sign strongly-worded letters of censure and publicly condemn the perpetrators after every incident much could be achieved quickly.  They should also deny known trouble-makers the essentials of Orthodox life - community membership, inclusion in a minyan, aliyot, and even refuse them business and burial - the old-fashioned cherem (ban of excommunication issued against miscreants to deprive them of social and economic opportunities).  And most importantly, the rabbis should work together with the police to identify, apprehend and punish this scourge on the religious world.  And even though this strategy will never be entirely effective, it will shown beyond a doubt that Orthodoxy and its teachers utterly repudiate these contemptible people, something which, rightly or wrongly, is being questioned at the moment.  Then with God’s help will we succeed in restoring the sense that a real Torah society is headed by shoftim ve-shotrim.


1.  The word is a corruption of the Latin ‘Sicarii’, an extremist Jewish group active against the Romans immediately before the destruction of the Temple in 70AD.

2. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and a small number of other important rabbis have spoken out against the Sikrikim, but there has been mostly silence from the primary leaders of the Lithuanian-Yeshivish and Chassidic communities.

3. Sadly, this is no idle concern.  There have been some ugly incidents when the property and family members of outspoken rabbis have been threatened; one well-known rabbi who spoke out on a previous occasion had to go into hiding for a week following the publication of his remarks.  Much more seriously, there was even the horrific murder last year of a prominent Sefardi rabbi by a demented ex-follower.

4. The doctrine that rabbinical guidance determines the ‘correct’ approach to every issue, even those outside of narrow halachic parameters.

Sermon Notes 29/10/11 - Noach

Noah and Becoming One's Self

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

This week’s parashah starts with the phrase אלא תולדות נח נח – these are the products of Noach: Noach.  Rabbi K.K. Shapira, the Piaseczno Rebbe, notes that to be spiritually successful, the product of Noach must be, well, Noach.

Making one’s unique contribution to the world by developing, within the framework of Torah and mitzvot, one’s own spiritual character, is an essential feature of a meaningful religious life.  Too often, we try to fulfil the aspirations of others, becoming clones of them, rather than ourselves.

Sermon Notes 15/10/11 - Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot

Gilad Shalit: Rejoicing After The Deal Is Done

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

I have taken a couple of days to process my own feelings about the impending prisoner exchange in Israel, which will include the return of Gilat Shalit after five years in Hamas captivity.  By Shabbat Chol HaMoed I felt able to offer some thoughts on an extraordinary moment in Israel’s history.

I saw a quote from MK Yisrael Hasson which sums up my stance beautifully: הלב שמח, הראש דואג  – the heart rejoices, the head worries.  Who is not filled with delight at the prospect of Gilad’s return – a Jewish boy, a soldier captured protecting our land, will soon be freed and celebrating with his family?  Yet who is not also consumed with angst at the prospect of releasing 1000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom were responsible for major terrorist atrocities?  And perhaps more worrying, what are the longer-term consequences for Israel of vastly inequitable deals such as this?  It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is a victory for Hamas and an incentive for further abductions.

Jewish sources have long debated this issue.  The most well-know case was that of the 13th-century German-Jewish leader, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, who was kidnapped in Lombardy in 1286.  Tradition has it that a huge sum was raised to ransom him, but he refused to allow the community to pay the money for fear of encouraging other abductions.  Even after he died in prison in 1293, his body wasn’t released for burial for a further 14 years.  In more recent times, the view of Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, a world-leading American scholar, was solicited during a 1970 Arab plane-hijacking.  One of the passengers was Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, a famous Rosh Yeshivah and Torah personality.  Rabbi Hutner’s students were considering raising a large ransom for his release, but Rabbi Kaminetsky opposed this move.  He argued that in wartime (and he considered the ongoing Arab-Israeli hostilities to be such a situation), the delivery of a ransom strengthens the enemy’s position, something unconscionable, no matter the alternative.

Yet in my view, this position, while compelling, is only relevant pre facto and must not determine our response to the Shalit deal post facto.  This distinction is informed by a halachic rule about what one says about a poor purchase made by a friend – while beforehand one may say that one doesn’t like the item, once he or she has purchased it, one must set aside one’s reservations and be unfailingly supportive and positive.

The agreement over Gilad Shalit’s release is done.  Whatever our misgivings about the deal and its consequences, we must all now thank God that it has happened and enthusiastically celebrate Gilad’s imminent return to his family.  Any other response would devalue the significance of his release, spurn the efforts expended by so many on his behalf and divide the Jewish people.

Sermon Notes 03/06/11 - Naso

The Nazir and the Self-Critical Jew

If you’d wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but...

A nazir or is a man or woman who voluntarily takes a vow to abstain for a defined period from wine and grape products, taking a haircut and contact with the dead (See BeMidbar 6).

To get to the bottom of this rather odd concept, it is necessary to understand the key word – יפלא   – which appears in its opening sequence of the relevant passage.  It teaches something about the nature of the vow itself: the Talmud translates it as ‘with clarity’.  While this has certain technical aspects, it can also mean that the nazir must be certain of his or her motivation and fully understand the vow’s ramifications before taking it.

This touches on why someone might choose to become a nazir.  Possible reasons are: (a) to articulate a burning passion for spiritual growth which is expressed through the temporary adoption of a set of personal stringencies; (b) because of a ‘holier-than-thou’ approach to life – the nazir thinks that he or she is ‘better’ or more spiritually advanced than others.  While, at least in some circumstances, motivation (a) is laudable, b) is harmful and a misuse of a powerful spiritual opportunity.  By demanding פלא   – clarity, the Torah expects the nazir to engage in a process of soul-searching before taking the vow to ensure that it is taken for the right reason.

The haftorah (drawn from Shoftim 13), describes the miraculous events surrounding the birth of Shimshon, who was a life-long nazir.  An angel appeared to Manoach and his wife and promised them that they would produce a child who would save the Israelites from the Philistines.  When challenged by Manoach, the angel revealed that his name was פלאי   – the very word that introduces our passage.  Shimshon was to aspire to devote every fibre of his being to God and the Israelites; while in practice, he didn’t always succeed, the angel left his parents in no doubt as to what would be expected – an extraordinary degree of clarity of altruism in pursuing his mission.

Although we no longer have the vow of the nazir (although see here and here for information about Rabbi David Cohen, the ‘Rav ha-Nazir of Jerusalem’, a real nazir of recent times), its principles are certainly germane today.  Stringencies – in Hebrew, חומרות – are very much in vogue in the religious world.  While in the right circumstances, the implementation of carefully-selected stringencies can stimulate genuine spiritual growth, it is regrettably common for them to be little more than a type of destructive halachic one-upmanship.  The passage of the nazir provides a stark lesson – one must always question one’s motivation when adopting voluntary religious responsibilities.  The Torah requires us to develop the self-awareness needed to distinguish between a genuine desire for spirituality and ‘keeping up with the Cohens’.

Finally, the importance of the nazir’s motivation, and by extension, the need to become a self-critical Jew, is illustrated by a famous piece in the Talmud.  Shimon ha-Tzadik, a high-priest of the Second Temple era, explained that with one exception, he never ate the offerings brought by nazirim, as he suspected their motivation:

Shimon ha-Tzaddik said: Only once in my life have I eaten of the guilt offering brought by an impure nazir.  On one occasion a nazir came from the South, and I saw that he had beautiful eyes, was of handsome appearance, and with thick locks of hair symmetrically arranged. I said to him: ‘My son, why did you see fit to destroy your beautiful hair?’ He replied: ‘I was a shepherd for my father in my town. [Once] I went to draw water from a well, gazed upon my reflection in the water, whereupon my evil desires rushed upon me and sought to drive me from the world [through sin]. But I said to it [my lust]: "Wretch! Why do you brag in a world that is not yours, with one who is destined to become worms and dust? I swear that I will shave off [his beautiful hair] for the sake of Heaven."’ I immediately arose and kissed his head, saying: ‘My son, may there be many nazirim such as you in Israel! (Nedarim 9b)