Lessons from the Nazirite

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 Nazirite

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.  Specifically, the Nazir may not drink wine or cut his hair.  The purpose of this removal from material affairs is to encourage greater devotion to Hashem and the Torah.  This will be much more thoroughly discussed later.  His vow endows the Nazir with a degree of sanctity.  Because of this sanctity, the Nazir is prohibited from defiling oneself through contact with a dead body.

The Torah establishes a minimum duration for the Nazir’s vow.  The Nazir must commit to a period of abstinence of at least thirty days.  The Nazir may subscribe to a longer period of abstinence. The length beyond thirty days is discretionary.  A person may vow to be a Nazir for a number of months or even years.

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.

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”.[2]  Unkelus adopts this literal rendering in his translation of the Torah.

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 translating passage less rigorously and that it actually means that the Nazir brings himself.

Of course, Rashi’s 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; 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!  Furthermore, by expressing itself in this straight-forward manner the Torah would have averted the need to interpret 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.

Moderation and the purpose of the Nazir’s vow

Rambam – 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 Rambam’s position.  A person who has a moderate attitude toward personal wealth seeks a level of wealth adequate to secure a reasonable degree of material comfort and security.  This attitude is balanced between the extreme attitudes of the spendthrift and the miser.  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 Rambam, 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.  Neither may we 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 each have attitudes that are not moderate but instead somewhat extreme.  For example, some of us are overly shy; others are egotistical.  How does one correct a flaw?  Rambam explains that the Torah suggests we temporarily force ourselves to adopt those behaviors that are opposite of our initial tendency.  The stingy person practices being a spendthrift.  The glutton adopts a very restricted diet.  With time, this adopted behavior counters the person’s initial extreme attitude.  Freed from the initial fixation at the extreme, one is able to achieve the moderate behavior and attitude required by the Torah.  The once stingy person is able to spend his wealth reasonably. The glutton finds he has developed a heathier attitude toward food.

Rambam explains that the mitzvah of the Nazir should be understood in this context.  The Nazir is a person who was overly attached to material indulgence.  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 to correct an extreme attitude and behavior. [3]

The discretionary period of the Nazir’s vow

Mesech Chachmah comments that it is notable that the Torah does not suggest an appropriate length of time for the Nazir’s vow.  However, this is completely understandable based upon the interpretation of the mitzvah presented by Rambam.  The Nazir is undertaking a process of personal abstinence, in order to temper his desires and to achieve a more moderate attitude.  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 months or even years.  How does the Nazir determine the appropriate period for his vow?  He must evaluate himself with complete objectivity and determine the intensity of his tendency toward overindulgence.  Once he makes an honest judgment of himself, he can determine how long 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 both conducts the investigation and is its object.

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 investigator 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 – meaning, he brings 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 obligations 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.[4]

Applications of the lesson of the Nazir

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 through introspection.  This is not easily accomplished.  It is very difficult to adopt the detached attitude required for effective and thorough introspection.  Mesech Chachmah acknowledges this difficulty and is advising a strategy. Use as one’s standard of rigor the degree of critical scrutiny and ruthless dissection that we commonly apply to our critique of others.

This may prove to be very difficult to achieve and it will certainly be a painful process.  Even If the introspection described by Meshech Chachmah is not perfectly achieved, it will yield a very important secondary benefit.  Through an honest process of introspection and through recognizing our own shortcomings, we will become more forgiving of others and of their failings.  Our introspection does not need to be perfect to instill within us a greater degree of humility.  With the recognition of our own many failings comes more empathy for others and their failings.  We learn to forgive others for their flaws though recognizing our own.

[1] Reprinted with revisions from “Thoughts on Parshat Naso 5772”.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 6:13.

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

[4] Rav Meir Simcha of Devinsk, Meshech Chachmah on Sefer BeMidbar 6:13.