Naso: Hairstyles and Humility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

It’s summer in Swampscott, so we must be reading from the book of Bamidbar. In
English,the book of Bamidbar is called “Numbers,” because it begins with a census, and
that census continues in this week’s portion, where specific families of Levites are
given tasks pertaining to the Mishkan [portable Sanctuary.] Significant laws in Naso include confession and restitution after harming someone; the ritual of the suspected wife
[“Sotah”], and the laws of the Nazirite (a person who had taken a special vow). The portion concludes with along description of the identical gifts brought to the Mishkan by 12 leaders of the people,one for each tribe.

The laws of the Nazirite (cf. Numbers 6:1-21) are fascinating- this was an
institution of ancient Israel wherein a person would voluntarily vow, for a limited period, to refrain from cutting his hair, forswear drinking any kind of alcohol or fermented product, and stay away from any kind of corpse (and thus avoid this particular kind of ritual impurity for the duration of his vows.) Why these three things in particular are the subject of vows might be another discussion, but for now, let’s focus on the fact that the Nazirite chooses, for his own spiritual reasons, to enter into a temporary state of greater emphasis on the spiritual and less emphasis on the material.

Think about it: wine is the paradigm of pleasurable consumption; haircuts and
shaving are the basic activity of grooming and looking nice, and staying away from dead
bodies, for our Biblical ancestors, means that one could freely enter into the sacred areas,
which would be prevented by ritual impurity. Thus, a Nazirite chooses to enter into a
limited period wherein the focus is on spiritual things, instead of the bodily pleasures
and focus on external appearances that are so typical of daily life.

The Nazirite vows were not permanent; nobody is expected to be on an exalted
spiritual plane permanently. Still, wouldn’t it be great to take some time out of our busy
lives during which we focus less on trivialities like hairstyles and fashion
statements, in order to focus more on the really important things, like our relationship with God and community?

Eating and drinking is pleasurable, but what we’re eating matters a lot less
than our gratitude for the sustenance. Looking nice is fine, but one’s haircut is a lot
less important than one’s character and commitments. Pleasures of the body are good things in Jewish thought, as long as they don’t become distractions from our spiritual goals. The laws of the Nazirite remind us that we don’t have to be slaves to fashion, because we are servants of a higher purpose.

You can read the full text of Naso here:

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