Naso: Living Fully In The World

 Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

This is the ritual for the nazirite: On the day that his term as nazirite is completed, he shall be brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  As his offering to the Lord he shall present: one male lamb in its first year, without blemish, for a burnt offering; one ewe lamb in its first year, without blemish, for a sin offering. . . . “ (Bamidbar / Numbers 6:13:-14)

Good morning!

In this week’s portion, we learn the laws of the nazir– a person who had taken a vow of dedication to God who then had to leave his hair untrimmed, avoid any and all intoxicating beverages, and not go near the dead. (More here and here.) There’s lots of commentaries explaining how those three prohibitions go together to fulfill the purpose of the nazirite vow, but for now let’s just go with the common understanding that wine and other intoxicating beverages are symbolic of sensory pleasure, while leaving the hair uncut is a rejection of vanity and outward appearances.

So far, so good- the nazirite wanted to enter into an ascetic state for a temporary period, and refrained from celebrating the pleasures or appearance of the body for that time. I can easily understand why someone would want to do that: for reflection, for introspection, for discipline, for spiritual commitment and rejuvenation.

Notice, however, that when the term of the nazirite vow is over, before he cuts his hair, thenazir brings a sin offering. Some commentaries interpret this to imply that rejecting sensory pleasures and social norms (e.g., looking totally untrimmed and ungroomed set one apart) isn’t actually desirable, over the long run. There is a balance between body and soul, and one who chooses to remove him or herself from the world we live in may tip the scales too far in one direction- even if his goal is spiritual dedication and growth.

Seen this way (but this isn’t the only way to see it), the nazir’s vow of abstention from pleasure and withdrawal from normal society is not an unalloyed good- to which I would add the thought that a spirituality which can only be practiced in asceticism and solitude is not a viable spirituality for the long path of life. Sometimes going on retreat is absolutely necessary, to place bodily pleasure and social conventions in their proper perspective. For example, consider  how we refrain from bodily pleasure and adorning ourselves on Yom Kippur.

The example of the nazir reminds us that there are more important things in life than nice meals and a stylish appearance; I’d go so far as to say those things are fairly far down the list of things to which we might dedicate our lives. Yet life is a blessing, to be enjoyed when possible, and Judaism also reminds us to rejoice with wine and dress l’kavod Shabbat [in honor of the Sabbath] weekly.

Perhaps the nazir brings the sin-offering only because it’s hard to get the balance of life just right: in withdrawing from the world, just a bit, the nazir also denies the beauty and blessing of embodied existence. To be dedicated to God is a beautiful thing; to live fully in God’s beautiful world is also part of an integrated spirituality. The sin-offering of the nazir remind us not to trade one for the other.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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