• Samuel Lebens

Nasso: The Holy Sinner (or the Barbecue Kiss)

In this week's reading we are introduced, for the first time, to the concept of the Nazirite. A Nazirite is a person who adopts a number of prohibitions that don't generally apply to regular Jews. They must (1) abstain from wine (and from any product derived from grapes); (2) abstain from cutting their hair; and (3) they must avoid the ritual impurity that comes from contact with the dead (even from contact with the corpses of their own family). Upon adopting these restrictions, they could also specify a time-frame for their term as a Nazirite -- although some may choose to become a Nazirite for life (and indeed, Samson and Samuel were both, lifelong Nazirites, in the Bible -- although, in their cases they didn't actually choose to become Nazirites at all, but had this status thrust upon them by Divine command (in the case of Samson), and by the oath of a mother (in the case of Samuel)).

If a person became a Nazirite for a fixed period of time, then this week's Torah reading lays out a ceremony for the completion of his or her term. They are to bring three sacrifices to the Tabernacle or to the Temple: a burnt offering, a peace offering, and a sin offering. The most distinctive part of this ceremony would be when the Nazirite would shave off all of their hair (the hair, that is, which grew during the term of their Nazirut). This hair would then be placed on the fire along with the peace offering.


Is it generally a good thing to become a Nazirite? The Rabbis were divided. The fact that they must bring a sin offering, if they accidentally became impure in the midst of their term as a Nazirite, not to mention the sin offering they must all bring at the end of their term, was taken by Rabbi Elazar Hakappar as evidence that to be a Nazirite is sinful in and of itself. For what sin do these sin offerings atone? Apparently, it atones for the sin of abstaining from that which is permitted. A different Rabbi Elazar disagrees. Yes, the Nazirite has to bring a sin offering. But we shouldn't ignore the verse which says (Numbers 6:8:) "Throughout his term as Nazirite he is holy to God." How can that status be bad? And indeed, Nachmanides would later suggest that the only sin here is the sin of ceasing to be a Nazirite: "for it would have been fitting for him to remain a Nazirite forever."


This Rabbinic ambivalence is rooted in our reading, which teaches us that the Nazirite is holy to God in the same breath as it requires his or her atonement. This ambivalence animates Rabbi Shimon Hatzadik in a famous Midrash on our Torah reading which also appears in the Talmud.


Rabbi Shimon Hatzadik was a Priest who served in the Temple. As a priest, he was entitled to eat from the sin offerings of the Jewish people. And yet, he said:

In all my days, I never ate the guilt-offering of a ritually impure nazirite except for one. One time, a particular man who was a nazirite came from the South and I saw that he had beautiful eyes and was good looking, and the fringes of his hair were arranged in curls. I said to him: My son, what did you see [that made you want] to destroy this beautiful hair of yours [by becoming a nazirite]? He said to me: I was a shepherd for my father in my city, and I went to draw water from the spring, and I looked at my reflection, and my desire quickly overcame me and sought to expel me from the world. I said to myself: Wicked one! Why do you pride yourself in a world that is not yours; in that which will eventually be [eaten by] worms and maggots? I swear by the Temple service that I shall shave you for the sake of Heaven.

I suppose that this person's hair was long even before he became a Nazirite. And his story echoes that of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection. And yet, he didn't cut his hair off right away, to destroy the beauty that threatened to lead him astray. Instead, he decided to grow it for God. He knew that as a Nazirite he would, eventually, have to destroy his locks and offer them up, alongside a peace offering to God. Rabbi Shimon continued:

I immediately arose and kissed him on his head. I said to him: My son, may there be more who take vows of the nazirite like you among the Jewish people. About you the verse states: “When a person shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a nazirite, to consecrate themself for the Lord” (Numbers 6:2).

There's so much to say about this Midrash. What does it mean to dedicate one's beauty to God, and how can that help a person to overcome the selfishness and the arrogance of the narcissist?


Opposition to the Nazirite, from Rabbi Ezalar Hakappar, all the way down to Maimonides, tends to have been rooted in a general opposition towards extremism. If the Torah allows things, such as wine, then, all things being equal, they should be enjoyed (albeit, in moderation). But it seems as if Rabbi Shimon's opposition was different. He simply didn't believe, for the most part, that the Nazirite was sincere. More specifically, he didn't believe that they were doing it "for the Lord." Indeed, Rabbi Yona teaches, in an effort to explain the position of Rabbi Shimon, that normally, a Nazirite would be so lacking in motivation that their sacrifices would be meaningless. A sacrifice without true intention behind it, we know from previous posts, is nothing more than dead meat. It desecrates the Temple.


How often is religious piety a thin veil for narcissistic pride? I'm reminded of a well known joke about a student in a Yeshiva [a Rabbinic academy] who was renowned far and wide for his unrivaled humility and piety. He slept on the floor instead of a bed. He ate nothing but bread and water. He studied all day. And everywhere he went, he was accustomed to saying again and again, "I am a worm. I am a worm." One day, a new student arrived at the Yeshiva and was deeply impressed by the example of his older peer. Instantly he began to imitate his ways. Everywhere he went, he would say, "I am a worm. I am a worm." His role model, however, was incensed at being upstaged. "Oh really," he said, in disparaging tones, "he's been here ten minutes and already he thinks he's a worm!"


Rabbi Shimon was impressed only by one Nazirite; a young man who really wasn't doing it to look good. On the contrary, he knew that he would be destroying his good looks, and thus Rabbi Shimon could believe that it was really being done for God. The hero of this story, so enamored by his reflection, was no Narcissus at all. On the contrary he is the Rabbinic anti-Narcissus. He was holy to the Lord. It's the other Nazirites who were, according to Rabbi Shimon, the narcissists.


Many years ago, I learnt this Midrash as it appears in the Talmud. The context in which it appears deserves attention. It appears amidst a discussion regarding two types of vow. To use the Hebrew terminology, we can distinguish between a neder and a nedava. They are both types of vow, and yet the distinction is easy to draw in some contexts. For instance, to vow by making a neder to bring a sacrifice to the Temple creates an obligation upon a person to bring a sacrifice. To vow by making a nedava in that context, by contrast, would create an obligation, not upon a specific person to bring a sacrifice, but upon a specific animal, that it should be brought as a sacrifice. A neder creates an obligation on the person making it. In that sense, it is a self-directed action. A nedava, by contrast, creates a more abstract debt that needs to be paid by someone, but not necessarily by the person making it. Accordingly, a nedava is directed towards the action to be done, rather than upon the agent who does it.


Regarding sacrifices, the Talmud teaches that the scrupulous always prefer a nedava over a neder. Ostensibly it's because they fear God to such an extent that they don't want to make any commitments that they can't keep. You might make a neder in all sincerity, hoping to be able to bring a sacrifice, but what happens if circumstances make it impossible? The scrupulous don't want to take that risk. Instead, they take an animal to the Temple and only when they get there do they make a nedava in order to consecrate the animal, there and then, to the service of God. But perhaps there's another reason why the righteous prefer a nedava to a neder. It's because the righteous don't like there deeds to be self-directed, they like their actions to be service-directed.


Having understood the distinction between a neder and a nedava in the context of bringing a sacrifice, the Talmud asks an interesting question. What would be the distinction between a neder to become a Nazirite and a nedava to become a Nazirite? It is only with this question hanging in the air that the Talmud quotes our Midrash.


Rabbi Nacham

When I was learning this passage in Yeshiva, I was studying under the tutelage of Rabbi Samuel Nacham; a master Talmudist, a maverick, and a master educator. He asked me a question, all those years ago. What is the relationship, he wanted to know, between the kiss and the barbecue? That is to say: Rabbi Shimon tells a story about a man and his sacrificial meat; his barbecue. He kisses one of them (the man and not the meat), and he eats from the other (the meat and not the man). Might he still have eaten from the barbecue had he not felt compelled to kiss its owner, or was the barbecue the result of the kiss?


I never did get to the bottom of Rabbi Nacham's question. I didn't know what he meant? But today a possible answer occurred to me. The difference between a neder and a nedava is about direction. They are both actions with outwardly identical results, but a neder is directed towards the person doing the deed and a nedava is directed towards the deed itself. There's actually a philosophical puzzle as to how these two notions can be distinguished.


Imagine that there's a cat sitting on a mat. Now imagine that there's a mat being sat on by a cat. Have you imagined two separate things? Or one thing described in two ways? It's tempting to say that you've described the same thing twice over. There's simply no difference between a cat sitting on a mat, and a mat being sat on by a cat. It's only if you think that direction is a fundamental feature of the world that you'll come to think that there's a big difference between a cat on a mat, and a mat under a cat. If direction is a real feature of the universe then a cat being on a mat is a state of affairs in which the cat comes first and the mat comes second, and that's a different state of affairs from the mat being under the cat; a state of affairs in which the mat comes first and the cat comes second.

This is actually a contemporary debate among philosophers, believe it or not. In the blue corner, you have Kit Fine, inspired by Bertrand Russell. He thinks that direction isn't a real feature of the world. And so, there aren't two states of affairs here. There's just one, which can be described in two ways. In the red corner, you have Fraser MacBride, inspired by the earlier and later Bertrand Russell, who argue that direction is too fundamental a feature of the universe to be done away with, even if that means recognizing the uncomfortable consequence that one cat sitting on one mat is always going to give rise to two states of affairs.


Similarly, it is only if you admit that direction is a real feature of the universe that you can distinguish between a neder and a nedava. From the outside they look the same, but their direction is different. For most Nazirites, in the eyes of Rabbi Shimon, their public acts of piety were really directed upon themselves. They were not truly for God. The direction was from the deed onto them. They had only made a neder to become a Nazirite. But for this one anti-Narcissus, his identical deeds flowed in the opposite direction, they flowed from him onto his deeds; he had made a nedava and this direction was mirrored in Rabbi Shimon's movement from the kiss towards the meat, from the agent towards the deed.


Our Torah reading describes the Nazirite in a way that could make him look like a saint or a sinner. According to Rabbi Shimon, most Nazrities were sinners posing as saints. But one of them was a sinner who became a saint by dedicating to God the very beauty that had threatened to lead him astray.

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