Parshas Naso: Living in a Material World Without Becoming a Material Girl
דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֖ אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אִ֣ישׁ אֽוֹ־אִשָּׁ֗ה כִּ֤י יַפְלִא֙ לִנְדֹּר֙ נֶ֣דֶר נָזִ֔יר לְהַזִּ֖יר לַֽיהוָֹֽה:
Speak to the children of Israel, and you shall say to them: A man or woman who sets himself apart by making a nazirite vow to abstain for the sake of the Lord. (Bamidbar 6:2)
Who is the Nazir?
The Nazir is either a man or a woman who takes an oath to abstain from drinking wine, cutting their hair or coming in contact with the dead. Generally a Nazir took this oath for a limited amount of time (though it is permissible to do so for the entirety of one's life) at the end of which they would come to the Beis HaMikdash, cut their hair and burn it and bring a special korban.
There seems to be an inherent contradiction in the Torah's portrayal of the Nazir. On the one hand we are taught that the Nazir is "abstaining for the sake of the Lord" and on the other hand the Nazir is obligated to bring a korban at the end of their Nezirus. Which one is it? Is the Nazir someone we should look up to, perhaps even strive to be like or are they committing an egregious sin?
The Authentic Nazir
The Gemara (Nedarim 9b, Nazir 4b as well as in the Tosefta Nazir 4:7) relates to us the following story. Shimon Ha-Tzaddik said: In all my days, I never ate the guilt-offering of a ritually impure nazirite except for one occasion. One time, a particular man who was a nazirite came from the south and I saw that he had beautiful eyes and was good looking, and the fringes of his hair were arranged in curls.
I said to him: My son, what did you see that made you decide to destroy this beautiful hair of yours?
He said to me: I was a shepherd for my father in my city, and I went to draw water from the spring. I looked at my reflection in the water and my evil inclination quickly overcame me and sought to expel me from the world. I said to myself: “Wicked one! Why do you pride yourself in a world that is not yours? Why are you proud of someone who will eventually be (food in the grave) for worms and maggots? (I swear by) the Temple service that I shall shave you for the sake of Heaven.”
I immediately arose and kissed him on his head. I said to him: My son, may there be more who take vows of naziriteship like you among the Jewish people. About you the verse states: “when a man or a woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a nazirite, to consecrate himself to the Lord”
(A similar yet markedly different version of this story appears in Greek literature as well only that in the Greek telling of this story the handsome man Narcissus takes his own life after falling in love with his own reflection.)
It is clear from these Gemaras that Shimom HaTzadik felt that taking a vow of Nazirus was not the proper thing to do as he refused to eat from their korban. A quick biographical history is in order to help us understand how serious we must take the words of Shimon HaTzadik. Shimon HaTzaddik was the first Tanna and the last member of the Anshei Knesses HaGedola. He was both the Kohen Gadol and the head of the Sanhedrin giving him the leadership role in both the political and religious sphere. As a the head of the Sanhedrin he was just and fair and so beloved by the people that they gave him the appellation of the tzaddik, the righteous one. Chazal tell us that there were five miracles that occurred in the Beis HaMikdash only during his tenure as Kohen Gadol. When Alexander the Great came to Yerushalayim with evil intentions it was Shimon HaTzaddik, dressed in the white Priestly garments that were used to enter the Kodesh HaKedoshim on Yom Kippur, who went out to greet Alexander. Upon seeing Shimon HaTzaddik, Alexander the Great prostrated himself on the ground explaining that he would see a vision of Shimon HaTzaddik promising him that he would be victorious before upcoming battles. From then on Alexander the Great promised that the Jewish people would not be persecuted. When a man like Shimon HaTzaddik refuses to eat from the korban of a Nazir it is a strong statement about how he felt about the actions of the Nazir. Clearly he felt that taking the vow of Nazirus was not something to be lauded. Why then did he feel differently about the Nazir in the above story?
The nature of a human being is that we take up a very small amount of space. When we consider how many people are in our communities, cities, states, countries and the entire world we must come to the conclusion that we are just one among the many. Historically we are but a blip on the radar screen, here today and gone tomorrow. Most legacies are quickly forgotten and just three generations later the children will be hard pressed to repeat their family genealogy let alone to tell a meaningful story about their great grandparents. When we think about the galaxies and the cosmos that are beyond us our space becomes that much less significant. And in this void of meaningless man does his best to take up as much space as possible. We own plots of land, build large houses, drive the fanciest cars, fly to the moon (and perhaps beyond), all in effort to make ourselves larger. One could argue that today the currency of space is not only measured by the size of your bank account but also by the fame that you have accrued. When the entire world is talking about you even though your actions have no direct bearing on their lives then you have achieved a meaningful existence. Movie stars are the easiest example. Hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars are spent exploring the lives of celebrities. Who they are secretly dating or marrying? The latest scandal. I have not yet met someone who can rationally explain to me why the Kardashians are famous. Celebrities are paid exorbitant amounts of money to endorse products because the advertising world knows that people emulate famous people.
The truth is celebrities take up the same amount of space as the rest of us. Buying a bigger house or driving the latest Beemer does not truly enlarge your value. It is clear to those that are paying attention that you will not have a happier or a more meaningful life by pursuing more space. In the end the space we take up is finite and limited. But that's ok because the goal of life is not to take up more space (an impossible task) but to live from a place that is beyond space. One of God's name is HaMakom, the space. God does not live within space, space exists within Him. Infinite does not mean that God takes up an unlimited amount of space. It means he is beyond the very notion of space. When God endowed us with a soul, a spark of his essence, he gave us the capacity to endow our existence with life. What we contribute to the world. Our activities are no longer mundane but given the opportunity to become sacred. To bring the world to its ultimate purpose. Judaism is the mission of engaging the physical world and revealing the Godliness that lies beneath the surface. Abstaining from the psychical world is a failure to perform the mission for which you were created. It is a philosophical error. It means you have identified existence as the be all and end all. There is something beyond space and God decrees that we are obligated to mine existence in order to uncover the light.
Serving God From The Void
The shepherd in our story was overtaken by his evil inclination. He looked in the water and identified himself not by his soul but by the beauty of his physical complexion. Our shepherd is at a crossroads in life. He can pursue a narcissistic life that is defined by his psychical beauty or he can abstain from the physical. Neither is a good choice. Both abandon the mission of Judaism. The Nazir makes a third choice. One that Shimon HaTzaddik tells us is the Torah approach. Ultimately the shepherd recognizes that existence will die. It is not correct to pursue an expanded existence that ends in worm food anyways. Celebrities will one day too pass and be forgotten. Their homes will be bought by others and torn down to be replaced with new ones. And so the shepherd makes his decision. He abstains from existence as a way of serving Hashem. He will grow out his hair and then he will cut in the Beis HaMikdash as a means of showing that it is not the beauty of the body that defines him but the mission of the soul. The korban he brings is like no other. It is a korban that says I apologize for not engaging the world in the fashion in which I was designed for. My evil inclination took hold of me and my service of Hashem needed to take a new path. Instead of engaging the world and revealing its Godliness I chose to abstain because of my own frailties. From the void of Godliness the shepherd found a way to serve Hashem. This is the truth of the Nazir. He or she is not someone we ought to be emulating. In principle we are meant to engage the world. However, the authentic Nazir is worthy of our admiration. They are true to themselves. They are self aware people who recognize the evil inclination that lies within existence. They know they don't have the capacity to overcome this Yezter Hora but they don't simply give up. They find new ways of serving Hashem. Their frailties and challenges become amazing opportunities to find Godliness in the evil inclination itself.
I imagine that all of us identify on some level with the authentic Nazir. Who can say that they don't find themselves overly attracted to the material pleasures of this world? Hopefully we can find the courage to confront the challenge and continue to engage the world in a way that is appropriate. When we feel like we can't, we turn to the Nazir for inspiration. Perhaps we won't take a vow of Nazrius. For us that would likely be hubris. However, like the shepherd we can serve God from a place that seems to lack Godliness, and in so doing we can discover new dimensions of the soul in this world.