Both this week’s Torah portion and Haftarah speak of the nazir, one who has pledged a life of service to G”d. This is surely and honorable and admirable thing. It takes someone really special to live the life required of a nazarite. Or so we might think. I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that the whole idea of the nazarite may have been the seeds of many of the problems that now besiege religion (and not just Judaism.)
Judaism is practical in its understanding that life’s struggle is about maintaining the best possible balance between the extreme – light and dark, good and evil, etc. Judaism recognizes the need for the existence of these oppositional forces. Judaism’s object is not be all and only good. It is about the struggle to find the balance. Judaism recognizes, for example, that it is often our yetzer hara, our evil inclination, that helps drive us to do the things we need to do to succeed in life, to earn a living, etc. Judaism’s challenge is to allow enough of the evil inclination to successfully compete in the world without totally compromising the ethics and values that our yetzer tov, our good inclination, compels us to follow.
A nazir is asked to forego some of the things that our ancestors viewed as temptations to give in to the the yetzer hara-things like alcoholic beverages. Nazarites are also asked to make great sacrifices. For example, they are not permitted to be near dead bodies, including even their closest family.
I’m not entirely sure how to evaluate the requirement that a nazarite not shave or cut their hair. For the sake of the argument I wish to make here, let’s place it in the category of the nazarite being able to avoid more quotidian tasks (though I’m certain the act was more symbolic than practical.)
Now, it must be understood, to place all this in proper context, that one need only become a nazir for only a limited or fixed period of time. A lifetime commitment was not required (though some did make such commitments.)
Most people became a nazir in fulfillment of a pledge made by themselves for G”d’s help (or perhaps sometimes to convince G”d to grant their request.) Parents could pledge their children to religious service, though this is not quite the same as an adult choosing to become a nazir.
So where am I going with this? Well, I am wondering if the most spiritual and holy people are those who, to some degree, separate themselves from the community. To some extent, I would more likely admire some everyday person trying their hardest to find the balance between good and evil while living an ordinary life than I would admire someone who was a nazir. To bring the concept along further, we can add concepts layered upon the nazarite idea by other religions – think of monks, yogi, brahmans – or, in the Jewish world, first the priestly class of the Temple periods, and later the hasidic (and other) scholars who did (do) nothing but study all day while others provide(d) for the means to support the scholars and their families.
The great rabbis of the talmudic period and later were not exclusively scholars, and did not live a nazir’s life. I imagine their ability to help the Jewish people understand how to live their daily lives in accordance to the Torah might have been greatly hampered had they led secluded lives. It is precisely because of the earthiness, their connection to things quotidian, that they were able to give a lot of practical advice. (Not all of the talmudic rabbis’ advice is practical, but that certainly was of concern to them.)
There are studies that suggest that the problems of abusive priests among Catholic clergy is unrelated to the requirement for celibacy. While this may be true, it certainly casts a shadow on the church’s extension of the nazarite concept to their own priests.
It all goes back to gan eden, and that forbidden fruit, a mistake I have long since classified as G”d’s first big mistake in parenting 101. I am unconvinced that self-denial is the only or even the appropriate path to enlightenment, or connection with the Divine. It doesn’t have a particularly successful history.
All of this is not to say that a simple life is not a good idea. I am not opposed to those who seek a simpler way of life. Personally, I’m not one who is overly enthusiastic for that simpler a life. I do appreciate the technologies that our brains enable us to create – even with their inherent dangers and drawbacks. However one can seek to lead a simpler life without having to make the sort of sacrifices asked of a nazir. In fact, I suspect those looking to live close to the land would not at all be aided by taking a nazarite’s approach. They need to be very connected to their earthy sides as well as their Divine sides.
The nazirite. An idea whose time never really came, and an idea that was never particularly useful. There are many other ways to bargain with, make promises to, or give thanks to G”d.
Our ancestors may have thought the nazarite concept was a good idea. Our ancestors can be wrong.
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Others musings on this parasha:
Nasso 5770 - Cherubic Puzzles
Naso 5768 - G"d's Roadies
Naso 5767 (Redux 5759) - The Fourth Fold
Naso 5765-Northeast Gaza-Side Story
Naso 5763--Lemon Pledge
Naso 5759-The Fourth Fold
Naso 5760-Bitter Waters
Naso 5761-Keeping Me On My Toes
Naso 5762-Wondrous Names (Haftarah Naso from Judges)