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G-d spoke to Moses saying, "Speak to the Israelites and say to them, 'A man or a woman who shall dissociate himself by taking a Nazerite vow of abstinence for the sake of G-d… shall abstain from wine… and a razor shall not pass over his head'" (6:1-4)
The long central section of Parashat Naso includes the sections dealing with Sotah (the suspected unfaithful wife) and Nazir (taking on an additional personal status of holiness, prohibiting having a haircut or drinking wine).
The Talmud (Sotah 2a) brings the tradition that the reason the topic of Nazir follows that of Sotah is to teach that anyone who saw the harsh, degrading ordeal that the Sotah was put through should abstain from wine because it can bring a person to commit adultery.
The section of Nazir has significant characteristics. Firstly, it is long and detailed, like Sotah before it. Secondly, it is the concluding mitzvah in the section of the Torah between the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and when the Israelites left Mount Sinai (10:33). It concludes the Ten Commandments, the detailed laws governing everyday life, the construction of the Tabernacle, the laws connected to the Tabernacle, the dietary laws, and the laws concerning land and real-estate. What might be inferred from the Torah's giving Nazir that distinguished position in the text?
One approach lies in the opening words: "A man or a woman who shall dissociate himself by taking a Nazerite vow of abstinence…"
Having delivered a whole vital section of the Torah, it appears that placing Nazir in the concluding position is giving the following message. There are people for whom meticulous observance of the Torah is not enough. They want to do it better - and also want to be seen to be doing it better. That is human nature, and the Torah concedes it. People compete in all sorts of things, and the Torah is no exception.
However, the Torah disciplines the avenue of this type of competition. It does not recommend excesses in Shabbat, Kashrut, or dress codes. For these are all potential areas for observance one-upmanship (in today's terms, the chumra-of-the-week club), "Did you hear of my latest little chumreh-leh?" Such a person can also head the pack of: "his mouth and his lips honor me, but his heart is far from me" (Isaiah 29:13). There are some genuine people who want to intensify their devotion to G-d by becoming observant beyond the letter, and indeed the spirit of the Law. That is perfectly praiseworthy. On the other hand, there are some less-than-genuine individuals and even outright charlatans who use this type of behavior to jockey their way up the socio-religious ladder. That not only conveys a false image to the public, but can bring Torah observance into disrepute.
Indeed, it appears to me that most of the distasteful things that the non-observant associate with the strictly Orthodox fall under this category.
Yet the Torah does recognize the individual desire to go beyond the requirements of the Law. Therefore this law-based section of the Torah circumscribes how he or she should handle the desire to fulfill it beyond its letter and spirit. Firstly, it has to be on an individual basis - it cannot be enforced on others: "a man or woman… taking a vow of abstinence". A man or woman. Not a community. Secondly, there should be no social fringe benefits. Hair should be untidy and uncut (6:5). No grapes or wine (6:3-4). No attendance at a funeral, even of a close relative (c.f. 6:6).
Even in today's terms, it does not look 'cool' to abstain from grapes, look untidy, or not attend a funeral of a close relative. There are no social fringe benefits. There is no making others feel awkward for not doing likewise. No-one is likely to associate it with a Torah-ordained norm. Thus being a Nazerite suits only those who are really sincere in taking on more than is required to become closer to G-d.
And even so, the Torah does not give the circumscribed Nazir practice its full blessing. In bringing a prescribed Nazerite-associated offering to the Temple, "the priest effect atonement for him because he sinned against his soul" (6:11), The Talmud (Nazir 19a) brings a tradition that the actual sin was his own self-deprivation of wine, by becoming a Nazerite in first place…
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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