Lessons from the Nazir

And this is the law of the Nazirite, when the days of his Nazirite vow are fulfilled: He shall bring himself to the door of the Ohel Mo’ed. (Sefer BeMidbar 6:13)

1. The laws of the Nazir
Parshat Naso describes the mitzvah of the Nazir – the Nazirite. The Nazir is a person who takes a vow to separate oneself from material pleasures. The Nazir may not drink wine or cut his hair. The Nazir is also prohibited in defilement through contact with a dead body. The purpose of this removal from material affairs is to encourage greater devotion to Hashem and the Torah. The Torah does not specify the period for which a person must commit oneself to being a Nazir. In practice, the period of time is discretionary. A person may vow to be a Nazir for a year or for a number of years. However, thirty days is the minimum period for which a person may vow to be a Nazir. If a person vows to be a Nazir and does not specify the period for which the vow will be in-force, then it remains in-force for thirty days.

Upon completion of the period of the vow, the Nazir performs a series of activities in the Temple. These include shaving off the long hair that he has grown during the period of the vow and bringing a number of sacrifices.

2. The Nazir brings himself to the Tabernacle
In the above passage, the Torah explains that on the day that the Nazir completes his vow “he brings himself to the Ohel Mo’ed” – the Tabernacle and initiates the process described above. This translation of the passage is suggested by Rashi. However, Rashi acknowledges that this translation is not literal. The literal translation of the passage is the “he brings him”.[1] Unkelus actually suggests this literal translation.

The problem with the literal translation is obvious. Who are the “he” and the “him” in the passage? Presumably the “him” brought to the Tabernacle is the Nazir. But who is the “he” who brings the Nazir to the Tabernacle? Because of this difficulty Rashi suggests that the passage must be translated less rigorously and that it actually means that the Nazir brings himself.

Of course, Rashi’s innovative translation does not completely solve the problem presented by the passage. The passage remains difficult to understand. Why did the Torah not express itself more simply and leave out the transitive “brings” and in its place use the intransitive “comes”? The Torah could have said that upon completing his vow, the Nazir comes to the Ohel Mo’ed! By expressing itself in this straight-forward manner the Torah would have averted the need to translate the passage in a less than literal manner.

Rav Meir Simcha of Devinsk – Mesech Chachmah offers an important answer to this question. Before considering his explanation of the passage, more information about the mitzvah of Nazir is needed.

3. Moderation and the purpose of the Nazir’s vow
Maimonides explains the Torah is designed to help us achieve moderation in all of our attitudes. But what constitutes moderation? The term “moderation” assumes that the moderate attitude is balanced between extremes. In other words, every proper attitude occupies a midpoint along a continuum of possible attitudes. An example helps illustrate Maimonides’ position. A person who has a moderate attitude toward personal wealth is able to use his wealth in order to secure a meaningful improvement in his condition. This attitude is balanced between the extreme attitudes demonstrated by the spendthrift and those of the miserly person. The miser cannot part with his wealth even when circumstances dictate that the expenditure is worthwhile. The spendthrift expends his wealth with abandon, unable to consider the true value of the items he purchases. According to Maimonides, we should strive to conduct ourselves in a manner that is balanced between the two extremes. A person should not be a spendthrift. Neither should one be stingy.

Similarly, we are not permitted to act cowardly. We also may not endanger ourselves unnecessarily. Instead, our attitude toward risk should reflect moderation. We should be willing and able to subject ourselves to a reasonable risk if the circumstances so demand. The same pattern applies to all behaviors and attitudes. We must seek the middle road.

Inevitably, we all have attitudes that are not moderate but instead somewhat extreme. Some of us may be overly shy. Others may be egotistical. How does one correct a flaw? Maimonides explains that the Torah suggests that we temporarily force ourselves to adopt the behavior and attitude of the opposite extreme. The stingy person practices being a spendthrift. The glutton adopts a very restricted diet. With time, this practice will enable the person to break the original attachment. One will be able to adopt the moderate behavior and attitude required by the Torah.

Maimonides explains that the mitzvah of the Nazir should be understood in this context. The Nazir is a person who was overly attached to material pleasures. The Nazir makes a vow to adopt the behavior associated with the opposite extreme. He embraces self-denial for a period of time. The ultimate goal is to free the personality from inordinate attachment to material pleasures. This will allow him to ultimately achieve an attitude of moderation.

However, the Torah does not want us to mistakenly view the Nazir’s behavior of self-denial as an ideal. We must recognize that the Nazir’s vow is intended as a corrective measure for an extreme attitude and behavior.[2]

4. The discretionary period of the Nazir’s vow
Mesech Chachmah comments that it is notable that the Torah does not suggest an appropriate period for the length of the Nazir’s vow. However, this is completely understandable based upon the interpretation of the mitzvah presented by Maimonides. The Nazir is undertaking a process of personal abstinence, in order to temper his desires and to achieve a more moderate lifestyle. The appropriate period for this vow is subjective and will differ from person to person. One individual may be able to achieve the moderation he seeks after a month-long period of abstinence. Another person may require a period of abstinence extending for a month or even years. How does the Nazir determine the appropriate period for his vow of abstinence? He must evaluate himself on a completely objective basis and determine the intensity of his tendency of overindulgence. Once he makes an honest judgment of himself, he can determine the appropriate length of time that he must engage in abstinence in order to overcome his tendency. In other words, the person contemplating a Nazir vow must engage in a process of personal introspection in which he is both the subject and object of the investigation. He is the subject who conducts the investigation and he is also the object of the introspection.

5. Honest and rigorous introspection
How does one engage in objective introspection? Meshech Chachamah continues and explains this process. It requires that the person look upon himself with the same critical attitude that he typically adopts when analyzing the behaviors of peers and neighbors. Generally, we have no difficulty in identifying the flaws, wrongdoings, and failings of others. However, this critical capacity fails us when we consider our own behaviors and attitudes. The person considering the vow of a Nazir must subject himself to the same critical scrutiny that he more easily applies to others. This is the meaning of being both the subject and object of the investigation.

On the basis of this observation, Meshech Chachmah explains the strange expression employed by the Torah in the above passage. The Nazir brings him or himself to the Tabernacle. This strange phrasing beautifully captures the introspective aspect of the Nazir. He, alone, determines the length of his vow and when he will come to the Tabernacle to complete his duties and obligation as a Nazir. He makes this determination based upon objective introspection. He treats himself not as “me” but as him. He – the Nazir who has evaluated his flaws and embarked upon a path of personal improvement – brings him – the person whom he objectively evaluated – to the Tabernacle.[3]

6. Applications of the lesson of the Nazir
Of course, to understand Mesech Chachmah’s comments as relevant only to the Nazir is to miss his point. Each of us should constantly strive to improve ourselves. Meshech Chachmah is suggesting that this process is best executed through being as critical and ruthless with ourselves as we are with others. A corollary to this insight is that by engaging in this process of introspection and recognizing our own shortcomings, hopefully, we will become more forgiving of others and their failings.

1. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 6:13.
2. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Introduction to Perkai Avot, chapter 4.
3. Rav Meir Simcha of Devinsk, Meshech Chachmah on Sefer BeMidbar 6:13.