Our sedra contains the laws relating to an unusual phenomenon in the religious life: the case of the nazirite, an individual who undertook - by oath and for a limited period - a special set of self-imposed restrictions. He vowed  to refrain from wine and other intoxicants, including anything made from grapes;  not to have his hair cut; and  not to allow himself to be defiled by contact with the dead.
Was this a good thing or not? Is the nazirite to be commended for his extra piety, or on the contrary, to be pitied and forgiven? On the face of it, if piety is good, exceptional piety is exceptionally good. Yet a curious air of ambiguity lies over the whole concept of the nazirite, and the sages and commentators were themselves divided in their evaluation of the person who decided to become one.
The source of this ambiguity lies in the biblical text itself. On the one hand, the nazirite is called holy:
Throughout his term as a nazirite, he is holy to G-d. (Num. 6: 8)
On the other, when he completes the period of his abstinence, he is commanded to bring a sin offering:
This is the law for the Nazirite when the period of his separation is over. He is to be brought to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. There he is to present his offerings to the Lord: a year-old male lamb without defect for a burnt offering, a year-old ewe lamb without defect for a sin offering . . . (Num. 6: 13-14)
Why, if it is an act of piety to adopt the special restraints of a nazirite, should the individual concerned have to bring a sin offering? Nachmanides gives a simple and compelling answer:
Until now he was separated in sanctity and the service of G-d, and he should therefore have remained separated for ever, continuing all his life to be consecrated and sanctified to G-d, as it is said, I raised up some of your sons for prophets, and your young men for nazirites (Amos 2: 11). Thus Scripture compares the nazirite to a prophet . . . Accordingly, [when he completes the period of his vow and returns to ordinary life] he requires atonement, since he goes back to being defiled by the [material] desires of the world.
For Nahmanides, the sin offering was brought to atone for the fact that the individual has ended his naziriteship, not because he undertook it in the first place. Nachmanides has no doubt that becoming a nazirite is a positive act.
Yet, not all were convinced of this. Some of the sages took a markedly negative view:
Samuel said: whoever indulges in [voluntary] fasting is called a sinner. This is in accordance with the view of Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar Berebi, who stated: What is the meaning of the phrase (Num. 6: 11), and make atonement for him, because he sinned against the soul (usually translated as "by coming into contact with the dead"). Against which soul did he sin? We must conclude that it refers to denying himself the enjoyment of wine. 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. It follows that one who keeps fasting is called a sinner.
(Taanit 11a; Nedarim 10a)
For these sages, becoming a nazirite is self-imposed asceticism - denying yourself the pleasures of the world. This means rejecting, or at least not celebrating, the world G-d created and called good. The phenomenon of the individual who withdraws from society and lives a life of self-denial is well known in many religions. Such people are usually regarded as holy. Judaism - according to Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar and Samuel - takes a different view. We serve G-d by enjoying the delights of life:
The sages said in the name of Rav: a person will have to give reckoning and account for everything that his eyes saw and he did not eat. So concerned was Rabbi Elazar with carrying out this teaching that he used to collect small change and use it [to buy new produce]. Thus he was able to taste every kind of food at least once. (Yerushalmi Kiddushin 4: 9)
So there were two views in Jewish tradition. Some approved of the nazirite for his extra piety. Others criticized him for denying himself the pleasures of G-d's material blessings. This is not unusual: disagreement is part of the texture of Judaism. What is unusual, however, is Maimonides' view, because he seems to take both sides of the argument. In Hilkhot Deot (3: 1) he writes:
A person may say: "Desire, honour and the like are bad paths to follow and remove a person from the world, therefore I will completely separate myself from them and go to the other extreme." As a result, he does not eat meat or drink wine or take a wife or live in a decent house or wear decent clothing . . . This too is bad, and it is forbidden to choose this way.
Whoever does so is called a sinner. Indeed G-d says about the nazirite: "He [the priest] shall make atonement for him because he sinned against the soul." The sages said: If the nazirite, who only abstained from wine, needs atonement, how much more does one who abstains from all [legitimate pleasures] need atonement.
Therefore the sages commanded that a person only abstain from things forbidden by the Torah alone . . . Concerning these things and others like them, Solomon commanded, saying: "Do not be overly righteous or over-wise. Why should you destroy yourself?" (Eccles. 7: 16)
This is the view of Rabbi Eliezer haKappar. Elsewhere however (Hilkhot Nezirut 10: 14), he writes this:
Whoever vows to G-d [to become a nazirite] by way of holiness, does well and is praiseworthy. Of such a person, Scriptures says, His consecration to G-d is upon his head . . . he is holy to the Lord. Indeed Scripture considers him the equal of a prophet, for it says I raised up some of your sons for prophets and your young men for nazirites.
This is the opposite view, and the one taken by Nachmanides.
How are we to understand Maimonides? He is teaching us a profound truth, that the moral life is not always simple: a matter of black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. It usually is, but not always. Viewed from the perspective of personal perfection, the nazirite is good and holy. But from the perspective of Jewish faith as a whole, such a life is not an ideal. Judaism wants us to celebrate life, not retreat from it. That is what Milton meant when he wrote: "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat." It is holy to retreat from the world and its challenges - but holier still to engage with them.
Lifting Others, We Ourselves are Lifted
The Times June 2005
Last week was Week of the Volunteer in Britain. Next week we in the Jewish community celebrate the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost). Seeking a connection between the two — the timely and the timeless — I found it in the text we read on the festival: the Book of Ruth.
The story of Ruth has a simple beauty that never fades. It is about two women, an Israelite, Naomi, and her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth, and the human bond between them. Naomi’s husband and sons have died. Both women are now childless widows. Naomi tells Ruth that they must part and rebuild their separate lives. Ruth refuses. She accompanies Naomi back to Israel and eventually marries another member of the family, Boaz. From that marriage, three generations later, David was born, Israel ’s greatest king.
One Hebrew word epitomises the book: chessed, usually translated as “loving kindness”. It is what links the book’s main characters. In fact, it added a word to the English language. In Middle English, “ruth” meant kindness. Today only its negation remains: the word “ruthless”. But the story has immense power. Childless widows were the most vulnerable, defenceless members of ancient societies. In addition, Ruth and Naomi were divided by ethnicity. The Israelites and Moabites were longstanding enemies. They had nothing in common but mutual distrust. Whenever I read the book, the words that come to mind are the famous phrase of Tennessee Williams: “The kindness of strangers.” Ruth is about the simple gestures that transcend differences, the universal language of help to those in need.
Its message still stands. Shavuot is when we celebrate the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. The fact that we read Ruth’s story at this time tells us that society cannot be made by laws alone. It needs something more — the unforced, unlegislated kindness that makes us reach out to the lonely and vulnerable, even if we are lonely and vulnerable ourselves. Then and now, society needs the kindness of strangers.
That is what volunteering is — and it is part of the unsung greatness of Britain today. We are a ruthful, not a ruthless, nation; 26 million of us are engaged in some form of voluntary work. Another 11 million describe themselves as “waiting to be asked”. The numbers continue to rise, especially among the young.
We saw this in the outpouring of generosity that followed the tsunami tragedy last year. It is evident again in the Make Poverty History campaign. We care. We want to give. We seek to help. We are not just concatenations of selfish genes. Like Ruth and Boaz, we find ourselves stretching out a hand to the stranger. Kindness, compassion, chessed, lie at the core of our humanity. They represent the strange, unexpected truth that by sharing our vulnerabilities, we discover strength.
The paradox of volunteering is that the more we give, the more we are given. I lose count of the number of times I have thanked people for their voluntary work, only to be told: “It is I who want to give thanks for the chance to serve.” Lifting others, we ourselves are lifted. Happiness — the sense of a life well lived — is born in the blessings we bestow on others. Bringing hope to someone else’s life brings meaning to our own.
I find it moving that the Bible dedicates a book to the story of David’s great-grandmother Ruth, as if to say that her life was no less significant than his. She was a stranger, an outsider, someone with nothing but her own force of character, her refusal to walk away from another person’s troubles. David was a military hero, a master politician, a king. There is a form of greatness, suggests the Bible, that has nothing to do with power, fame or renown. It exists in simple deeds of kindness and friendship, generosity and grace. Rarely do they make the news. But they change lives, redeeming some of the pain of the human situation.
Britain’s volunteers are our Ruths. Each is writing their own sequel to her story. Volunteering is rarely glamorous and never easy, especially for those with many other pressures on their time. But few things count more when it comes to looking back on a life than being able to say, I made a difference. Beneath the clamour of self-interest, a quieter voice within us whispers the deeper truth, that the greatest gift is to be able to give.