Parashat Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89
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“I want to be alone” is not the Jewish route to holiness.
It was in the film Grand Hotel that Greta Garbo spoke the words: “I want to be alone,” a sentiment most of us feel at one time or another. We all need that timeout, but it is rarely a long-term desire. We are both social animals and communal creatures.
In the Torah we come across some “timeout” moments. There is the separation imposed by the community on the metsora, a person with a particular skin disease, (see Parashat Tazria 5771) when the separation can be viewed as beneficial to the individual providing an opportunity to focus on healing. There is the act of karet, when a person is cut off from the community as a drastic punishment (see Parashat Bo 5771).
This week in parashat Naso we read about a third type of separation: the institution of the nazir. Technically, the nazir is not necessarily physically separated but set aside in a ritual or spiritual sense. The nazir, from a root meaning “to consecrate,” was a person who took a vow for a period of time. The nazirite vow required abstinence from three things:
Throughout his term as nazirite, he may not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine, even seeds or skin.
Throughout the term of his vow as nazirite, no razor shall touch his head; it shall remain consecrated until the completion of his term as nazirite of the Lord, the hair of his head being left to grow untrimmed. Throughout the term that he has set apart for the Lord, he shall not go in where there is a dead person.Numbers 6:4-6
Rashi explains the concept of nazir as meaning dissociation from something.
This can be understood as an attempt to reach a higher spiritual plane, to draw closer to God. The restrictions placed on the nazir are similar to those placed on the priest. In fact, the instructions found in our parasha are similar to the priestly restrictions found in Leviticus 21. Towards the end of the Second Temple period, taking on nazirite vows became a popular way of expressing thanksgiving for any number of situations such as recovery from illness or return from battle. Probably the most well-known nazir was Samson, who was consecrated as such by his mother before birth. The prophet Samuel was also a lifelong nazir. Jewish tradition adds other names: most notably Berenice, the daughter of Herod Agrippa I, and Queen Helena of Adiabene, who converted to Judaism.
These are some pretty significant individuals, which highlights the important role this institution once played. Even once the nazirite institution came to an end, there were still positive comments made about it. Nachmanides goes so far as to say the person who commits to becoming a nazir should ideally take it on as a lifelong obligation. (He adds that not doing so can be viewed as a transgression.)
You’d think the institution of nazir would be a great opportunity for ordinary Yossels and Yocheveds to show their spiritual commitment and upgrade to Jew 2.0. Yet somewhere along the way, the institution of the nazir came to an end and – with all due respect to Nachmanides – the prevailing view took on a very negative spin. One reason for rabbinic opposition to this institution was owing to the growing fashion to become a nazir for all the wrong reasons: “Simon the Just was of the opinion that people make the nazirite vow in a fit of temper, and since they vow in a fit of temper they will ultimately come to regret it…” (Numbers Rabbah 10:7, Soncino translation)
The opposition to the institution of the nazirite enables us see Numbers chapter six in a different light. The same chapter that begins with the nazir ends with the fifteen words that form the priestly blessing, followed by the concluding remark: Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them (Leviticus 6:27). The individual who took on the vow of the nazir wanted a special connection to God. The priestly blessing is that vehicle, the difference being it focuses on the community and not the individual.
Clearly, “I want to be alone” is not the Jewish route to holiness. It may be possible to feel a spiritual connection alone in a quiet room or on a mountaintop, but sustained, ongoing holiness is found in the tangle of interactions with others and in the elevation of the entire community.
Rabbi Michal Shekel