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)