Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Naso is a smorgasbord of seemingly (but not really) random topics leading up to the consecration of the Mishkan (the Sanctuary): a census of some of the Levitical clans, what to do with ritually unclean people, how to handle accusations of adultery (with the strange ritual of the sotah), the rules and restrictions of the Nazarite and the famous three-part priestly benediction.
This week let’s focus on the nazir – the one who takes the Nazarite vow and pursues holiness in the extreme. The Hebrew word for holy, kadosh, literally means, “set apart for God.” The nazir is someone who takes a vow to set themselves apart either for a specific period of time, or for their entire life. Once the vow has been taken, there are three restrictions: they may not cut their hair, drink wine or come into contact with the dead.
If the purpose of being a nazir is to remove all distractions so that the nazir can focus only on God and holiness, then there is a certain logic to these restrictions. Coming into contact with the dead naturally leads us to consider our own mortality. If we are thinking about ourselves, then we are not thinking about God. Similarly, grooming oneself could also be a distraction from God. Plus, the long hair of the nazir would make them easy to spot – alerting others to respect their special status. Finally, drinking wine does not exactly clear the mind. How can we be holy if we are drunk?
Being nazir may lead to an intensification of holiness, but it is an extreme act, and despite its clear depiction in Torah, is rarely if ever seen today. On the contrary, the rabbis ordained that holy days and life cycle celebrations be sanctified with the kiddush (literally “the holy prayer”) over wine.
How can this be? How can drinking wine lead to holiness when the Torah says abstaining from wine leads to holiness?
The rabbis devoted an entire tractate of the Talmud to this question and continued to argue it well into the medieval period. In the end, the consensus suggests that different people require different paths. As a general rule, the rabbis advocated the path of moderation. They understood how an extreme approach to piety could lead to religious extremism. However, they allowed that some people, perhaps because they were spiritually unstable (either on a temporary or permanent basis), needed the rigidity of the nazir’s vow as a spiritual counterbalance.
For the rest of us, the vast majority, they offer a different approach. Rabbi Eliezar HaKappar taught that asceticism is not a path to holiness, but rather is a sin, because wine is a pleasure which comes from God’s creation. He wrote: “from this we may infer that if 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.”
Not that he was a Hedonist, far from it! The rabbis were, after all, passionate about moderation. Rather, Eliezar recognized that every pleasure of life is a gift from God. For us, pursuing a life of holiness does not require withdrawal from the world, but the opposite. Our task is to orient ourselves towards God through gratitude, recognizing the Divine in all the good which surrounds and permeates our lives. So, eat, drink and enjoy! And offer thanks to the One who so generously made every bit of it possible.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras