People serve God in many ways. And when I say “serve God” I am not talking about isolated people performing arcane rituals or the like. I am talking about how individuals live their lives, how they do what they do in the world in the service of others outside of themselves, whether those others are people, animals, creation itself, or for lack of a better term, God.
In the beginning of Parshat Nasso, we read that the individual clans of Levitical and Priestly families each have their own avodah, their own work to perform. Some are in charge of packing up and carrying the most sacred items in the Israelite camp: the lamp stand, the showbread table, the incense altar and the Ark of the Covenant. Some are in charge of breaking down and setting the outer structures of the mishkan, and so on. But each type of work is still called avodah, service, and is still part of the larger sacred service that the Levite tribe performs.
Few of us are Kohanim or Levites, and for those of us who are still or trace our families back to those clans and that tribe no longer have those sacred items or sacred structure to be the focus of our service in the world.
How do we serve God today?
Another way to ask the question is this: Which of these two options is better? Is it better to shake off all this-worldly affairs and concerns, to separate completely from all matters of the world, and take no pleasure in the world. Or is it better to immerse oneself in the benefits of this world and to raise them up to a higher level? Which of these two options is preferable? Which one is easier than the other?
From what I know of the Torah and the rabbinic interpretation of it, there is a strain of the monastic or ascetic within the Jewish world that values a more complete separation from the material and the physical. There were the Essenes, who lived near the Dead Sea in the late Second Temple Period. There were some rabbis who fasted regularly and engaged in various types of purification or mortifications of the body, and there sages here and there in the middle ages who practiced asceticism. But by no means were these groups or movements ever considered mainstream or normative Judaism.
For the most part, Jewish life is set firmly in the world, and does not shy away from material pleasure or from satisfying our appetites, but within reason. One often hears that Judaism is a very this-worldly religion, without much focus on the afterlife. The system of Jewish living creates structures, within which one may enjoy many of the pleasures of the world, food, drink, sex, physical activities within limits. Kashrut defines foods that are on or off the menu, and what and when we eat. A clear vision of committed relationships creates boundaries for sexual activity. Concern for one’s physical well-being impose limits on the level of risk one can knowingly engage in.
Then we come across an institution in this week’s Torah portion that seems to fly in the face of this normative approach to Jewish life, the Nazir.
What is a nazir?
In the beginning chapter six of Numbers, we learn the following:
- Either an adult man or a woman can, through some kind of speech act such as a verbal declaration, enter into a series of temporary limitations, which are:
- they may not drink wine or any other intoxicating drink;
- they may not even eat any part of a grape or anything made from grapes;
- they may not shave off any hair from their bodies;
- they may not have any contact with a corpse, even if it a close member of the family who has died;
- the traditional minimum for a nazarite vow was thirty-days, which is the shortest amount of time it takes to grow out one’s hair;
- they must bring a complex set of offerings at the end of their nazarite term, including a burnt offering, a well-being offering, and a sin offering;
- they must also shave off all of the hair on their head and burn them along with the offerings.
What is going on here? Why would someone undertake this set of extra restrictions?
According to Rashi, someone does this to separate themselves apart from others for the sake of heaven.
For Ramban, it is done to become like a priest, and to serve God more fully for a set period of time.
Don Isaac Abarbanel suggests that the Nazir is even holier than the priests, perhaps because these stringencies take them above and beyond what the priests’ own limits are. A priest can handle a corpse for a member of the family, but not a nazir. A priest can shave their hair, but not a nazir, and so on.
Coming back to the two ways to serve God, the nazir seems to exist in-between the two poles of complete separation and immersion. There is distance from some ordinary pleasures, but not extreme ones. No alcohol. No grape products. No haircuts. No funerals. At the end, get a severe hair cut, and bring a set of offerings. There is no mortification of the body through fasting, flagellation, or other harsh treatments. This is a relatively gentle set of restrictions.
That said, this does take one away from the normative approach to life, which is to fully engage in the delights of the world, but within limits. The nazir does not move completely towards an ascetic, monastic life, but move towards that direction.
Why would someone take on this nazarite state and move towards the ascetic or monastic?
The Netivot Shalom suggests that some might take this one to silence one’s own inner turmoil, a turmoil of an unhealthy kind, or to deal with one’s perceived physical desires. It might be a way to turn one’s back on something that is permitted, but that one has developed an unhealthy relationship with. The structure of the nazarite vow could be a way to take some small steps away from normal society to work on yourself.
Maimonides also takes this view of the Nazir. He writes that “one who takes a nazarite vow in order to set right their inner qualities and to adjust their deeds, this one is enthusiastic and praiseworthy. All of this is in the service of God.” This vow and the like are fences that help one from going out of control.
The word Nazir is from the same root as “nezer,” which is term for a small crown, not unlike what the Kohen Gadol wears. One could understand that the one who takes on a Nazarite vow so praiseworthy as to be compared to a crown on God’s head. Everyone is subject to worldly appetites and desires, and those who refrain from them to a larger extent are God’s crown.
But there is one salient characteristic of the offerings that a Nazir brings at the end of their term that could shift one’s view of the whole institution, and that is the sin offering. One only brings a sin offering when there has been some error or mistake.
What is the nature of the Nazir’s sin? Was it something that they did in the before they took on the vow? Something at the beginning of their time? Perhaps it was something at the end their term?
For the Netivot Shalom and many others, the sin is taking on the nazarite vow in the first place. For them, the purpose of Jewish life is to live fully in the world. It means to take the mundane and elevate it to a higher level. This is done through increasing one’s level of intentionality and awareness of God as the source of all things. This is what he refers to a joining the lower world with the upper world. In general, abstention from the world is the easier of those two paths of serving God. It is far easier to avoid engaging in the world, and far more challenging to life fully in the physical world, to see beyond the surface, and to connect what is apparent to the eye to that which often escaped notice or awareness. The Nazir leans towards this easy path, and escapes some of this world’s temptations. From this point of view, the sin is having taken the easy path. The offering of well-being is then a celebration of return to normal life.
For Ramban, it is the opposite. It is not a sin to begin a Nazarite vow. Quite the contrary! To push one’s self to a higher level of holiness is commendable. The limitation of the Nazir are tame compared to what some other group’s ascetic practice might be. For Ramban, the sin lies in the completion of the term. S/he has put themselves on a higher level (a higher level even than the High Priest), and they are serving God in the world in this way, and they should stay there. But instead, they come back down to their lower level and return to a normal life. The sin offering here acknowledges this return to a lower state, and the well-being offering comes here as a celebration of having completed their term as a Nazir.
So which is it? Is it a sin to begin a nazarite vow or to complete a nazarite vow? In classic rabbinic style, I offer the possibility of “well, it depends.”
The Nazarite vow is a tool, as a spiritual technology to help the individual challenge the self, to take one’s self to a higher spiritual level without leaving the world behind completely. I find the Rambam view persuasive when he says that the Nazarite vow is for the person who needs to step away from some aspects of normal life to get their own affairs in order, a form of self-care that can be used as a tool for personal growth and transformation. This is not a selfish act, but rather an act that is looking out for the self in the service of God. If one does not take care of one’s self, then one cannot be there to serve the needs of others. Rambam views sleep and food in much the same way. If one does not take care of the whole person, than one cannot serve God by serving others.
In addition, the Netivot Shalom distinguishes between two kinds of nazir, the holy nazir and the errant nazir. The errant nazir is the one who, in the middle of the crisis, takes on a nazarite vow as an escape, as a last resort when normal attempts at self-control have failed.
The holy nazir is the one who undertakes this state well in advance of the crisis, before it becomes an emergency. This is the proactive decision to take time to work on one’s inner qualities and issues that need attention before the crisis hits. The only differences between the errant nazir and the holy nazir are the level of self-awareness and the timing. The rest of the work is the same.
They also share something else in common, which is the third offering they all make, which is an olah.
The olah is a burnt offering, which all goes up in smoke, offered as a gesture that says even though the time as a nazir has come to an end, the work done during this time will endure beyond this moment. The olah is a gesture of dedication, showing determination to remain on this higher level of holiness even after the nazarite vow is over.
For us today, this is a moot point. We no longer have a Temple in which to make the offerings, so those who make a Nazarite vow would find themselves stuck in it until there is a Third Temple in Jerusalem, and for that, I would not hold my breath too long.
What can we learn from the nazir? My takeaways from the nazir are:
- Each of us should identify a thirty-day period of time every year or every couple of years to do some serious personal work. In some sense, this is what the month of Elul before the high holidays could be.
- Setting aside a fixed amount of time to do this work is effective. The time frame gives borders to our work. Deadlines are useful things.
- Thirty days is the shortest amount of time that one needs to make real changes in how one lives one’s life.
- Even when we are working on ourselves, we should never completely absent ourselves from life.
- When we come to the end of such a period of time, we should treat that moment as one of reflection, celebration and dedication.
Think about your year coming up. When do you see a thirty-day or longer period of time where you can set aside some worldly things, temporarily set aside certain responsibilities, and use that freed up time to take care of your self, whether it is your physical, spiritual, emotional, or psychological self, or any other numbers of selves you might have. A period of time for you to reflect on some aspects of your inner landscape, your body, your life, and so on. Spend a set time each day doing that work. And at the end of that time, celebrate with a good meal. Burn something that want to leave behind as you complete that period of time. And dedicate to take all that you have learned in that period of time with you in the future.
This is another dimension of become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. This is one of the ways in which you can serve God, and become a jewel in the crown of the Creator.