Parshat Naso: The Kohein as Heir to the Convert

“If there is no relative to whom to return the dishonest gain, it must be returned to Hashem and given to the Kohen. This is in addition to the atonement offering through which he atones for the sin.” (BeMidbar 5:8)

The meaning of our pasuk is not readily apparent. Our Sages discuss the passage. They explain that the passage deals with a person who has been accused of owing money to another individual. The accused has taken an oath that no money is owed. Based on this oath, the court released the accused of any liability. Subsequently, the accused admits that he does owe the money. He is required to restore the dishonest gain, add an additional 20%, and offer a sacrifice.

Our passage discusses a special application of this law. The law is predicated on the assumption that the accused can make restoration to the wronged person or an heir. If the wronged party has died without heirs, how does the accused make restitution? To whom does the accused give the dishonest gain and the 20% fine?

Before we consider our passage’s solution to this dilemma, we must consider another issue. How is it possible for a person to die without any heir? Certainly, through tracing the victim’s ancestry we can find some distant heir! Our Sages respond that the passage deals with a victim who is a convert and dies without children. Those that were related to the convert prior to conversion do not qualify to receive the funds. This person truly has no heirs!

Now, let us return to our passage’s response. Who receives the money? Our pasuk answers that both the principle amount of the wrongful gain and the 20% fine are given to the Kohen.

Why does the Kohen receive the money? Gershonides offers a very important answer. He explains that the Torah apparently wishes to associate the convert with the Kohen. In effect, the Torah makes the Kohen the heir of the convert. The Kohanim are the most honored group within the nation. Creating an association between the convert and the Kohen elevates the status of the convert.

Why does the Torah wish to elevate the status of the convert? Gershonides proposes that the Torah is concerned with the welfare of the convert. The convert does not have extensive family ties within Bnai Yisrael. This might mark the convert as an attractive victim for the unscrupulous. In order to protect the convert from such scheming, the Torah assigns to the convert the most respected relatives in the nation. In short, the message communicated by this law is that one who steals from this lonely convert will have to answer to the honorary relatives – the Kohanim![1]

“The priest shall prepare one as a Chatat and one as Olah to atone for his inadvertent defilement by the dead.” (BeMidbar 6:11)

Parshat Naso describes the laws governing the Nazir. 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 from defilement through contact with a dead body.

A Nazir who does come in contact with a dead body is defiled. The Nazir must bring a series of sacrifices as atonement. One of these sacrifices is a Chatat – a sin offering. Rashi explains that this sin offering is required because the Nazir did not exercise adequate care in keeping the vow.[2]

Rashi offers a second interpretation of the Chatat offering. He quotes the comments of the Talmud in Tractate Nazir. Rebbe Eliezer HaKafar explains that the sin of the Nazir is not merely unintentional contact with a dead body. The sin of the Nazir is the self-affliction one has accepted. The Nazir vowed to abandon the pleasure of drinking wine. The Talmud further comments that we can learn an important lesson from this law. The Nazir is obligated to bring a Chatat because of a vow not to drink wine. A person who, as a general practice, abandons the material pleasures is even more guilty.[3]

This explanation of the Chatat is clearly supported by another law. A Nazir who successfully completed the vow must also bring a Chatat.[4] In this case, the vow has not been violated. Why is a Chatat required? Rebbe Eliezer HaKafar’s explanation resolves this issue. Even the successful Nazir requires atonement. The Nazir must atone for the self-affliction and deprivation.

This interpretation raises an obvious question. According to Rebbe Eliezer HaKafar, the Nazir has acted improperly. Yet, the Torah created the mitzvah of Nazir! How can the Torah define an inappropriate behavior as a mitzvah?

Maimonides deals with this question in his introduction to Perkai Avot. He explains that for virtually every behavior or emotion there exists an opposite extreme. We must attempt to achieve moderation in all of our behaviors. This means we should strive for to conduct ourselves in a manner that is balanced between the two natural extremes. A person should not be a spend-thrift. Neither should one be stingy. We are not permitted to act cowardly. We also may not endanger ourselves unnecessarily. The same pattern applies to all behaviors. We must seek the middle road.

Inevitably, we all have areas of behavior in which we are at an 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 of the opposite extreme. The stingy person practices being a spend-thrift. 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 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 the material pleasures. The Nazir makes a vow to adopt the behavior of the opposite extreme. The ultimate goal is to free the personality from the attachment to material pleasures. This will allow one to adopt a life of moderation.

However, the Torah did not want us to mistakenly view the Nazir’s behavior as an ideal. We must recognize that the Nazir’s vow is intended as a cure for a personality illness. How was this message communicated? This was accomplished through the Chatat of the Nazir. The Chatat teaches that the life of the Nazir is not inherently proper. The vow is necessary in order to help the Nazir achieve moderation. The ultimate goal is balanced conduct, not the extreme behavior of the Nazir.[5]

Maimonides seemingly contradicts this interpretation of the Nazir and the Chatat in his Moreh Nevuchim. There, Maimonides explains that one of the goals of the Torah is to completely distance oneself from the material desires. Furthermore, Maimonides asserts that the Nazir is considered a sanctified individual. How did the Nazir earn this status? Maimonides responds that the Nazir has given up wine![6]

These comments seem to contradict completely the position Maimonides outlined in his introduction to Perkai Avot. In the Moreh Nevuchim, Maimonides endorses extreme behavior. He also asserts that the Nazir’s abandonment of wine is laudable! How can these two positions be reconciled?

In these two texts Maimonides is dealing with two completely separate issues. In his introduction to Perkai Avot, he is discussing the basis for a healthy personality. He explains that psychological health requires, and is manifested, in moderation in behavior and in seeking pleasure.

However, the objective of the Torah is to guide an individual to truth and spiritual perfection. As a person grows spiritually and embraces the truth, the individual begins to re-evaluate the meaning of life. Material pleasures loose their glamour and attraction. This does not mean that the material world is abandoned through the acceptance of artificial vows. The tzadik simply loses interest in material affairs. This tzadik is the individual Maimonides describes in the Moreh Nevuchim. The tzadik is a truly spiritual person guided solely by truth and reality.

The Nazir is not the tzadik described in the Moreh Nevuchim. This tzadik does not require a vow. The tzadik does not create artificial restrictions. Instead, the Nazir is a person attempting to move away from an extreme attachment to material pleasure. The Nazir is striving to achieve the middle road. The Torah constructed a mitzvah to help this person – the mitzvah of Nazir. However, this mitzvah is not merely a set of restriction. The Nazir adopts the behaviors of the tzadik. He experiments with the behaviors of the truly spiritual individual. He learns that although he is not nearly ready to be this exalted person, he can live without the material pleasure to which he is fixated. In short, the Nazir is not the perfected individual described in the Moreh Nevuchim. However, he does adopt the behaviors associated with the tzadik.

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[1] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 5:5.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 6:11.

[3] Mesechet Nazir 19a.

[4] Sefer BeMidbar 6:7.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Introduction to Perkai Avot, chapter 4.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 3, chapter 34.