21/22 May: Naso : Shabbat Comes in 8:40 pm, ends 9:56 pm
Parashat Naso – The Holy Sinner
The question around asceticism has been long-debated in our tradition, and does not come with a simple answer. There is perhaps no figure who represents that tension better than the Nazirite, who is described in this week’s Torah portion. The Nazirite was any individual who made a specific vow to refrain from wine and grape products, and from cutting his or her hair; the Nazirite was also obligated to remain an appropriate distance from a dead body, a rule that is otherwise applied to the kohanim (the priestly caste). This vow would stay in place for the time that the individual allotted, though we have cases of biblical characters who were lifelong Nazirites (such as Samson and Samuel). Throughout the duration of the vow, the Nazirite is described as being ‘holy to God’ (Numbers 6:8). This might be read as a tick in the column for asceticism; there is an option to deprive ourselves from otherwise permitted bodily experiences in order to increase our holiness. However, the description of the Nazirite concludes with the obligation to bring a sin offering when the term of service has been completed. The sin in question is not described. This has led our sages to question whether the taking of the Nazirite vow was in itself a sinful act. How is it, then, that taking the Nazirite vow can be both a holy act and a sin ? Our sages have traditionally fallen into two camps: either the Nazirite vow is holy (in which case the sin offering must be explained away), or the Nazirite is a sinner (in which case the holiness must be explained away). This argument is replayed multiple times in the Talmud (e.g. Ta’anit 11a), and remains unresolved. The specificity of the vow to refrain from wine and grape products is fascinating to me. The Nazirite is not asked to avoid all pleasures, but rather to avoid this one in particular, and with a great deal of depth. But wine is not a good symbol for ‘all pleasures’ in our tradition, because it is also used in religious rituals. In order to turn away from the pleasures associated with wine, the Nazirite must also turn away from the potential for holiness. I don’t know whether the Nazirite is supposed to be a sinner or a saint, but I suspect that the answer is both. Perhaps the point that the Nazirite is missing – the point that is best exemplified by the kiddush cup on Friday night – is that our call is not to transcend the physical world, but rather to elevate it.