Parshat Naso, Numbers 4:21–7:89
The Torah understands that humans are fallible and, thus, tries to establish guidelines for the utmost purity. The running theme of this week’s Torah portion — Parshat Naso — is holiness. The Torah is concerned with our everyday moral behavior due to the dual nature of our service to other people and to God through Divine mandate and earthly obligation.
Among the various complex issues introduced in this parshat is the Nazirite (Numbers 6:1-21), who takes three strict prohibitions upon himself: not to drink, not to cut his hair, and — most essentially — not to become ritually impure. The Nazirite, in his singularly stark representation of an uncontaminated faith, presents a paradox: Judaism shuns asceticism, but the Nazirite must abide by a highly regimented code that restricts pleasure. And even more so, such an individual is considered both to be “Holy unto God” for his spiritual commitment, yet is also commanded to bring a sin offering after his season of asceticism (some suggest that this action is due to the sin of denying himself the pleasures of this world).
How do we reconcile the fascinating contradictions of the Nazirite? For if the Torah intends for us to reject asceticism yet gives precious space to describing the obligation of an ascetic branch of the priesthood, there must be a deeper meaning to the text here.
And of course, there is, though it does delve into esoteric territory. The rabbis teach that one who embraces a path of asceticism to deny themselves the pleasures of this world is sinning:
R. Eleazar HaKappar B’rebbi said, “Why does the Torah state, ‘And make atonement for him, for he sinned against the soul (Numbers 6:8)?’ Against what ‘soul’ did the nazir sin? It can only be because he denied himself wine. If, then, this man who did no more than deny himself wine is termed a sinner, how much more so is this true of one who is ascetic in all things! (BT Nazir 19a; BT Nedarim 10a)”
Ignoring a world that we are meant to enjoy goes against the values inherent in Creation. Why would God create a world if God’s creations are not meant to enjoy its splendor? Consequently, the rabbis teach that we are accountable to God if we do not enjoy the pleasures of this world (JT Kiddushin 4:12). Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch pithily suggests that we will be accountable to God for the permitted pleasures of this world that we do not enjoy and even asked at the gates of heaven: “Have you seen my Alps?”
Now, it goes without saying, that there is significant moral value in curbing our appetites and not pursing every pleasure we dream of. The Nazirite, in this stead, is a subtle warning against extremity. We must be measured in every aspect of our lives, from what we eat, to how we work, to how we conduct ourselves in sexual matters. And, to be sure, the Torah imposes numerous restrictions upon food consumption, sexual conduct and the tasks we can perform on the Sabbath, among many others. Further, it doesn’t hurt to take on a personal stringency based upon a religious and moral commitment.
Parshat Naso, however, reminds us that we should never reject wholeheartedly what the world has to offer. But at the same time, we shouldn’t succumb to every excessive opportunity. The prevailing Jewish orientation toward life is to embrace an ideology that is life-affirming and pleasure-affirming. We are not meant to retreat from the affairs of the world, nor are we to take unrestricted advantage of every delight that exists. Moderation of life’s pleasures is critical, though we need not go to the lengths of the Nazirite to avoid temptation. We are to balance joy in life with healthy measures of holiness. And in this space, we truly experience wondrous opportunities for awe, reverence and renewal. JN
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of Valley Beit Midrash and is the author of 13 books on Jewish ethics. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.