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Judaism: The Nazir: Man's Desire for Meaning

Turning away vs. turning towards. For Parashat Naso, this week's Torah reading.
Published: Thursday, May 29, 2014 6:44 AM


“I just want it to mean something…”

Meaning is a central, though often elusive, goal.  Whether the “it” is a particular task, a relationship or, indeed, life itself, we want – need – our effort, our existence to mean something.  In a fragmented age of Tweets and Facebook postings, of five hundred television stations and nothing to watch, or contradictory messages about learning, love, faith and relationships, how is one to find that elusive “meaning”?

When Job, tested so severely by God, demanded a witness, he was demanding nothing less than meaning for his suffering.  Ultimately, meaning is found in the certainty that we are not alone, in our lives or in existence. 

Rav Soloveitchik described this hunger for meaning when he spoke of the Lonely Man of Faith.  In his description, I pictured the existentially troubled Nazir, a man of faith whose religious experience is necessarily fraught with inner con­flicts.  He feels ecstasy in God’s companionship – meaning – and despair – loneliness – when he feels abandoned by God. 

His conflict is a mirror raised to our own experience of the modern world.  How does one make sense – find meaning – lost in a seemingly senseless, impersonal and narcissistic society?  How does one not feel like a stranger, alone? 

How does one not feel like a cipher, a mere numerical smudge in a never-ending cascade of demographics, data and statistics?  51,280 people in Scandinavia, Europe and the Soviet Union will develop cancer as a result of Chernobyl but only 5,128 will die.  7,294 men and 3,954 women in New York above the age of 20 die each year from causes directly attributable to smoking. 

Lost in these numbers is the simple truth that each of these numbers represent a real person! 

People are not statistics.  I am not a statistic.  But in a world seemingly defined by pornography, alcohol, drugs and violence, how is my voice heard?  How do I not become a statistic, a cipher; cut off from my fellow and from God?

Perhaps the answer is to take the route of the Nazir, to withdraw from the impersonal and profane world.  The desire to achieve a state of ecstatic transcendentalism seems to demand abstinence and complete withdrawal. 

But ‘turning away” does not solve the problem of aloneness.  “Turning toward” does.

Yet the religious personality often believes that in turning away – through afflictions, fasts and solitude – he has done enough.  Doesn’t this describe the method and goal of the Nazir? The Nazir seeks a thirty-day period to separate, to abstain from wine, from having contact with the dead, and he does not cut his hair.  By setting himself apart, he presumes to be closer to the holiness of the Lord. 

Certainly the goal of holiness is cherished by Jews.  And the inherent nobility of each and every person is fundamental to Jewish thought.  But is the Nazir a model or cautionary tale in our modern search for meaning and holiness?

Does the Torah hold the Nazir in high esteem or is it critical of his methods?  Even as we applaud one who consciously turns his back on the madness of the world, we are confronted by the implications of the choice.  The Nazir refuses wine, yet wine is central to every joyous event in Jewish life.  He turns away from death and yet the reality of death is also fundamental to who we are. 

As T.S. Eliot wrote, “In my beginning is my end.”  The joyful cry of the newborn reminds us not only of the joy of life, but also the inevitable cry of mourning. Even the refusal to cut his hair runs counter to our mores.  Halakhah ordains that prior to the onset of Sabbath and Yom Tov we should cut and, particularly, groom our hair. Furthermore, Halakhah teaches that hair not be too long, lest it interfere with the proper donning of the tefillin.

In choosing a different path, the Nazir turns away from normative Torah practice. He is recognized as a kadosh, yet his methods are also held to account in the Parasha, “And the priest shall offer one for a sin-offering and one for a burnt-offering and make an atonement for him.” (6:11) When his days of separation are over, he has to bring his sacrifices for a sin offering.

If the Nazir is to be commended, why a sin-offering? If he is condemned, why refer to him as holy?

The Ramban held that the Nazir is completely and genuinely holy. In his view, that the Torah requires a sin offering from him is solely because after thirty days he returns to the world of defilement and passions. It is the return to the profane world that demands atonement. Ramban then seems to suggest that the Nazir is a good model for us in seeking meaning in the world.

But before embracing the Nazir’s way, we must further explore what a life of perishut – separation, asceticism – actually means. Rabenu Bachya in the Sha’ar HaPerishut of his Chovot Halevavot gives several definitions of perishut,  “. . . special abstinence is the renunciation of everything that disturbs one from the service of God. . . . it means holding this world in abhorrence and curtailing desires . . . quietude of the soul and curbing its musings . . . it means limiting oneself to the minimum of clothing required for decency, taking of food only as much as is needed to still hunger . . . denying oneself of all relaxation and physical pleasure, limiting oneself to mere satisfaction of natural needs without which one could not exist, and excluding everything else from the mind.”

Bachya holds that as the world grew in complexity, wealth and power, the need for asceticism increased. For the ancients – Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Job – their souls were led to follow their understanding; they did not need asceticism.  However, as the generations increased, and the world sank deeper into the fragmentation and depravity we experience in the modern world, people have become more focused on the secular and profane, losing their interest in the holy.  A life of perishut may be necessary to regain perspective and reaffirm proper values. Rav Saadiah Gaon agrees, viewing perishut as a necessary attitude and method when confronted by a world defined by excess and sin.  He teaches, “Use it when neces­sary.”

While perishut  might be an appropriate technique to overcome moral and ethical inadequacies, religious and personal deficiencies, Rambam recognizes that it is possible – and dangerous – to become lost in the extremity of the technique.  He counsels moderation –  mida beinonit.  The right way is the middle way.

Rambam notes that the Nazir was only commanded to abstain in order to achieve a good purpose.  When he “turned away” he was also “turning toward” – turning toward God and holiness.  Only God provides the way to achieve meaning and overcome loneliness.  That being the case, it is easy to be critical of the ascetic who claims that since envy, cupidity, and ambition are evil, “I will avoid them to the uttermost, and seek their contraries”, and therefore concludes that he will not eat meat, or drink wine, or marry or dwell in a decent home, or wear comely apparel. For this separatist and ascetic the Rambam has only condemnation.  “Whoever persists in such a course is termed a sinner.”

A sinner? Yes.  If the Nazir, who only abstained from wine, requires atonement, say the Sages, how much more so one who deprives himself of all legitimate enjoyment? The Sages ask, “Do not the prohibitions of the Torah, say our Sages, suffice you, that you add others for yourself?”

This suggests that while it is valuable to “turn away from” those things that demean, “turning toward” offers greater meaning.  The Torah system of mitzvot is sufficient to guide and govern a normal life, which includes full enjoyment of the world which He created for our benefit, pleasure of the flesh which He provided, and satisfaction from the foods, drinks, and nature which He placed at our disposal. Otherwise, we sin just as the Nazir sins, by denying himself the enjoyment of wine.

The Nazir’s condemnation of the physical world results from his inability to function within the norm and the revealed.  If he finds meaning, it is only in the extreme.  The Rama holds that the absten­tion of the Nazir is evil in itself, since all extremes are bad.  For seeking meaning in life and attempting to make sense out of a chaotic, senseless, and impersonal society, he is a kadosh.  But his methods render him a sinner.

The Nazir personifies the ultimate search for truth, integrity, and faith. Ironically, on his path seeking meaning, he may abandon principles and behaviors governing the very life he seeks to find. That is unfortunate, and therefore he will have to offer a sin-offering; for the search for moderation is the ultimate struggle in the search for meaning. 

The Ropshitzer declared that before his birth an angel showed him a tablet divided into two columns.

On the right, “In order to know the Torah, a man must have no compassion for his wife and children. If he works to satisfy their needs, he will have no time to study the Torah.”  On the left, “He who pities people is pitied in Heaven. A man must care for his family even beyond his strength, for their lives are dependent upon his.”

On the right, “The learned man should be like unto a fiery flame.”  The left, “Who will inherit the world to come? The meek and lowly, who bows when entering and leaving.”

The Ropshitzer struggled with many other examples. “I was deep in thought on how difficult it is to find a way of behavior which will reconcile these contradictions when suddenly I heard a voice say, ‘Mazal Tov, a male child is born!’”

Like him, I continue to struggle to find a way that weds left and right.  It is the struggle for moderation. Such is the struggle between Nazir, the sinner, and Nazir, the holy.  Turning toward and turning away. 

On that middle path, I will find meaning and know I am never alone.