Jewish Journal

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Naso

Screenshot from YouTube.

PARSHA: NASO, NUMBERS 6:16

“The priest shall present them before the LORD and offer the sin offering and the burnt offering.”

Rabbi Rachel Silverman
Temple Israel of Sharon

It is natural when feeling vulnerable and when our sense of moral authority is challenged that we would respond by leaning toward extreme actions and attitudes.

We see such extreme behavior in this week’s Torah portion, with the laws of the Nazarite — a person who makes a vow of asceticism. There is no judgment presented in the Torah. When the inevitable happens and the Nazarite takes a vow, we’re told how he or she should fulfill it. And when the vow ends, we’re told that the Nazir needs to bring a sin offering to the Temple.

Is this an alcoholic making a decision to remove herself from any and all alcohol? Or someone who has decided that all evil is caused by drinking and thus won’t go near it? Is this a chemotherapy survivor embracing his newly regrown hair by leaving it uncut? Or is this a certain biblical character who deeply believes his physical strength comes from the length of his hair?

Which is the sin that the Nazir is committing — becoming a Nazirite or giving it up? Both. For the alcoholic, the vow of abstinence from liquor is appropriate, and the end of that vow could have disastrous consequences. Hence, a sin offering. But for someone so fearful of the potential effects of alcohol that they give it up (or anything else they abstain from), making the extreme choice instead of living life in moderation is the sin.

Excerpted from an essay on rabbirachelsilverman.com.

Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

The Nazir attempted to enter the realm of the sacred through abstinence and self-denial. Although these methods were legitimate in the ancient Jewish world, they were not to be regarded as normative. Sacrifice to God can best be accomplished by embracing the world, by performing mitzvot within the realm of the not yet sacred. To separate oneself is not the ideal way to serve God. That was the way of the designated and circumscribed priesthood, not the way of a people who strive to become a kingdom of priests within the world as it is and as it can be.

The Nazir chose a legitimate but not ideal way. Thus, when he/she returned, he/she had to make a burnt offering (either a sin offering or a purification offering) because his/her action was contrary to the ideal way. By becoming a Nazir, he/she had chosen temporary separation from the people and not life with the people. In order for the Nazir to return, a lesson is taught: The Nazir has acted in a way that requires purification.

Our task, then, is not to separate from our community and people and not to abstain from life‘s joys, but rather to affirm life at its best, to join in the task of making holiness part of our lives as together we build holy communities.

Excerpted from an essay on reformjudaism.org.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersch Weinreb

The Nazir is both a saint and a sinner. On one hand, he is called “holy”; on the other hand, he is referred to as a “sinner.”

While some commentaries stress the saintly achievements of the Nazir, others emphasize the sinful nature of his abstinence. Obadiah Sforno, for example, states: “He has become illuminated by the very light of life, and has become numbered among the holy ones of his generation.” The Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9:1) chastises him: “Is it not enough for you to abide by the Torah’s restrictions that you have prohibited upon yourself things which are perfectly permissible?” Upon which Maimonides proclaims: “Never have I heard a more wondrous statement” (Eight Chapters, Chapter 4). The Nazir’s way, nezirut, is the way of paradox.

It is not for every man. For most of us it is a sin to forbid that which the Torah permits. But for those of us who are vulnerable to the temptations of narcissism, the “strong medicine” of nezirut may be necessary, if only for a while.

Rigorously pious lifestyles do not render a person immune from the curses of narcissism. The ultimate paradox is that the Nazir, or anyone else who lives a life of extreme religiosity, can become as guilty as Narcissus of arrogant pride and self-worship. They can come to project a “holier than thou” attitude toward others. The Nazir can fail to rid himself of his self-admiration and instead become sanctimonious, cynically convinced that he is spiritually superior to his peers.

Excerpted from an essay on ou.org.

Rabbi Yissocher Frand

The Ramban, after acknowledging that the Torah does not state why a Nazir brings a sin offering, speculates that he knows he is going to re-enter the mundane world eventually and drink wine. After having elevated himself to the status of a Nazirite who abstains from earthly pleasures, he should have remained in that level of separation. Terminating the Nezirus and resuming a life of normal earthly pleasures is the action that triggers the requirement of a sin offering.

Rav Simcha Zissel Broide asks how the Ramban can contradict the Talmud, which states that the sin offering is for having abstained from wine?

Rav Simcha Zissel explains as follows: When this person started out as a regular person and accepted Nezirus upon himself, he “pained himself from wine.” However, something happened to him in the course of his 30 days of Nezirus — he became a more elevated person. The person who started the Nezirus is not the same person who ended it. The “plain guy” who started the Nezirus is the type of person about whom the Torah says, “Do not forbid upon yourself more than the Torah has already forbidden upon you.” There is such a criticism for “regular Joes.” However, once he has completed 30 days of elevated sanctity, he is no longer a “plain guy” anymore. He is standing at a level where such behavior becomes appropriate for him. He atones for going back to being a “regular Joe.”

Excerpted from an essay on torah.org.

Rabbi Andi Berlin

The Torah gives the Nazir an unspecified period to complete the introspection he or she requires. At the end of this period, the Nazir is instructed to bring a penalty offering to the Tent of Meeting. The sages go nuts over this. A penalty offering! Why would someone who voluntarily takes a vow be required to make a penalty offering? Most of our sages assume it is because the very nature of this vow, abstaining from what we believe is pleasurable, is the antithesis of what we are expected to do: partake of life’s pleasures. The sages understand the Nazirite vow as sinful because it causes a person to refrain from the bounty of the world.

To me, though, this is further proof that the Nazir is an addict. Keep in mind that these instructions were written at a time before psychology and social science. They were written at a time before Alcoholics Anonymous and psychoanalysis, in-house treatment centers and clinical behavioral therapy. In a 12-step program, one works one’s way toward amends. In order to remain sober or abstinent, one must make expiation for the harms one has caused. This is why the Nazir brings a penalty offering before God. Not only is the Nazir making amends for his or her own wrongdoings, but also more importantly, Nazirites are given an opportunity to physically and symbolically release their old, crusty, hang-on shame through the act of sacrifice.

Excerpted from an essay on fairmounttemple.org.