The Nazir suffers existential angst. He is a man of a certain faith, one which rockets between extremes – from ecstasy in God’s closeness and utter despair whenever he senses God’s distance.
Despite his passionate faith and desire for a relationship with God, he is alone. In his “aloneness” he shines a light on the Jewish experience, which is to seek a spiritual life while living in the secular; to reach for the spirit even as we wrestle with the flesh.
For the soul struggling for spirituality while existing in the unrelenting secularity of the world, the route of the Nazir must be seductive indeed; how wonderful the possibility of withdrawal from the impersonal, profane, and pleasure-seeking world!
The Nazir seeks for a thirty- day period to be apart, to abstain from wine, from contact with the dead, from even the most mundane acknowledgement of physicality. The Nazir desires to be completely “holy unto the Lord.”
And, as S. R. Hirsch explains, the Nazir wants to do this “…without retiring from actual contact with the social life around him, to work on himself, spiritually and mentally for the time of his vow of Nazaritism to be more by himself with God, His Sanctuary, and His teachings.” The Nazir is no hermit. His is an isolation of the mind and spirit, in the midst of an active and ordinary life. He avoids alcohol and anything remotely derived from wine to preserve an undisturbed clarity of mind and the unexcited tranquility of disposition to mold new and positive thoughts and feelings. He intentionally allows his hair to grow, expressing his intention to withdraw into isolation, to hide and cut off the outside world. He refuses any contact with death, with mortality, with the finality of life – so that he can regain meaning, goals, and aspirations in life.
Who can question the Nazir’s lofty intentions? Holiness is a divine goal. Our question does not challenge his purpose; it is undoubtedly positive. No, our pressing question is whether the Torah favors or criticizes the Nazir? Are we to laud the one who seeks to separate himself to find life’s meaning, or are we to insist that one can find real meaning through the vehicle of Torah’s 613 mitzvot?
Indeed, for every action the Nazir takes to distance himself from his secular existence, Jewish life and culture find holiness in its embrace. The Nazir refuses wine. Yet, wine is central to every major event and occasion of the Jewish life-cycle. Sabbath, Yom Tov, birth, marriage, and every seudat mitzvah are consecrated with a kos shel b’racha of wine.
As to confronting death, our consciousness tells us that all that is born dies. We cannot separate ourselves from death. It is intrinsic to what it means to be alive. We cannot separate ourselves from it and so, when confronted with the reality of the end we declare, “Blessed art Thou – Dayan Ha’Emet.”
As to our hair… only the individual in the state of mourning allows the hair to grow, for indeed the mourner finds himself in the unnatural state of bereavement, turning away from the world around him and seeking shelter and solace in his own “world.” Otherwise, Halachah ordains that prior to the onset of Sabbath and Yom Tov we should cut, and particularly groom, our hair. Furthermore, Halachah teaches that hair not be allowed to grow too long, lest it interfere with the proper donning of the head tefillin.
Clearly, in the very instances of his distancing himself from the secularity of life, the Nazir finds himself opposed to the normative Torah practice of life. So, while he is recognized as a kadosh, his sins are also explicitly referred to in the Parasha: “And the priest shall offer one for a sin-offering and one for a burnt- offering and make an atonement for him” (6:11). When his days of separation are over, he has to bring his sacrifices to the entrance of the Tent, and again we are taught: “and he shall offer his offering . .. for a sin offering” (6:14).
Are the Nazir’s methods and actions commended or condemned? If they are commended, why have him offer a sin-offering? If they are condemned, why refer to him as “holy”? The Ramban held that the Nazir is completely and genuinely holy. Indeed, he should “always continue to live a life of holiness and separation to God.” In Ramban’s view, the Torah requires him to offer a sin-offering precisely because he returns to the world of defilement and passions. “Now that he returns to defile himself with worldly passions, he requires atonement.”
Abstinence is the renunciation of everything that disturbs one from the service of God. Implicit in abstinence is holding this world in abhorrence and curtailing desires. The very world that God declared to be “good.”
Bachya believes that as wealth, power, and worldly goods multiply, so too does the need for asceticism.
Perishut is an attitude to live by, not necessarily a way of life to live with. It is a personal, not a universal, goal. So too Nezirut is a personal and temporary goal, to be used when necessary. It is not a rule to be imposed upon the community. It is not Torah.
The Rama notes that “the Nazir was only commanded to abstain in order to achieve a good purpose, the attainment of the middle way,” which he was not able to achieve through the normative methods suggested by Torah.
Rambam makes this perfectly clear after establishing the well- known approach of moderation—the mida beinonit, namely, that “the right way is the mean in each group of dispositions common to humanity; namely, that disposition which is equally distant from the two extremes in its class, not being nearer to the one than to the other” (Deut 1:4), and that “we are bidden to walk in the middle paths, which are the right and proper ways.”
Rambam suggests that life always be governed by the mida beinonit: “Let him practice again and again the actions prompted by those dispositions which are the mean between the extremes, and repeat them continually till they become easy and are no longer irksome to him, and so the corresponding dispositions will become a fixed part of his character” (Deut 1:7).
That being the standard, it is clear why the Rambam (Deut 3:1) criticizes the insecure individual who claims that, “since envy, cupidity, and ambition are evil qualities to cultivate and lead to man’s ruin, I will avoid them to the uttermost, and seek their contraries,” and therefore concludes that he will not eat meat, or drink wine, or marry or dwell in a decent home, or wear comely apparel.” For this separatist and ascetic the Rambam has only condemnation: “Whoever persists in such a course is termed a sinner.”
Of the Nazir, it is said, “He shall make atonement for him, for the sin that he committed against the soul.” On this text, the Sages comment, “If the Nazir, who only abstained from wine, stands in need of an atonement, how much more so one who deprives himself of all legitimate enjoyment.” The Sages accordingly enjoined us that we should only refrain from that which the Torah has expressly withdrawn from our use. Do not the prohibitions of the Torah suffice? Why add others?
The Torah system of mitzvot is sufficient to guide and govern a normal life which includes the full enjoyment of the world which God created for our benefit, pleasure of the flesh which He provided, and satisfaction from the foods, drinks, and nature which He placed at our disposal. Otherwise, we sin, just as the Nazir sins by denying himself the enjoyment of wine.
Ultimately, the Nazir’s sin is that he cannot live with moderation. He cannot live within the norm. He can find peace only in the extreme. For this he is condemned and must seek atonement. “This,” says the Rama, “is because the abstention of the Nazir is evil in itself, since all extremes are bad.” For seeking meaning in life and attempting to make sense out of a chaotic, senseless, and impersonal society he is commended; he is termed a kadosh. For doing so by seeking to escape that very same society, he is a sinner.
The Nazir embodies the search for truth, peace, integrity, and faith. Along his path, he may even have to abandon the very principles and behaviors that govern the life he seeks. That is unfortunate, and because of this he will have to offer a sin-offering; for the search for moderation is the ultimate struggle in the search for meaning.
Life is the struggle to reconcile the fundamental contradiction inherent in possessing a divine soul in a body of clay. Such reconciliation demands “everything in moderation”; it demands finding the middle path between Nazir the sinner and Nazir the holy.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing. A more extensive discussion of this theme appears in Rabbi Safran’s Passion and Peace- Traditional Torah Thoughts & Contemporary Reflections KTAV 1988.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.