Parshat Naso: The Holy Sinner?

We are commanded to partake of the good things God gives us.

We are commanded to partake of the good things God gives us.

This week’s parsha deals with, among other topics, the nazirite, who takes a vow to abstain from wine, cutting his hair, and coming into contact with the dead. Our Sages seemed to have contradictory views about the propriety of such a vow. Witness the following discussion in the Talmud. It is inspired by two verses that seem to imply two very different messages about the nazir. One verse decrees that the nazirite bring a sin offering at the completion of the term of his vow, “And make atonement for him, for that he sinned by his soul.” Yet another verse proclaims the nazirite to be holy, “He shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long.” The Sages comment:

Whoever fasts is termed a sinner… For it has been taught: … What is the Torah referring to when it says, “And make atonement for him, for that he sinned by his soul.” Against which soul did he sin? That he denied himself wine. Now, if this man who denied himself wine only is termed “sinner,” how much more so he who denies himself the enjoyment of ever so many things!
Rabbi Eleazar says: He is termed holy. For it is written (ibid., v. 5), “He shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long.” Now, if this man who denied himself wine only is termed “holy,” how much more so he who denies himself the enjoyment of ever so many things! (Talmud, Taanit 11a)

Perhaps the resolution between these seemingly contradictory views can be seen in a third Talmudic passage:

Simon the Just said: In the whole of my life, I never ate of the guilt-offering of a nazir, except in one instance. There was a man who came to me from the South. He had beautiful eyes and handsome features with his locks heaped into curls. I asked him: “Why, my son, did you resolve to destroy such beautiful hair?” He answered: “In my native town, I was my father’s shepherd, and, on going down to draw water from the well, I saw my reflection [in its waters]. My heart leaped within me and my evil inclination assailed me, seeking to compass my ruin, and so I said to it: ‘Evil one! Why do you plume yourself over on a world that is not your own? For your end is but worms and maggots. I swear that I shall shear these locks to the glory of Heaven!'” Then I rose and kissed him upon his head and said to him: “May there be many nazirites such as you in Israel. Of one such as yourself does the verse (Numbers 6:2) say: ‘A man or a woman who shall pronounce a special vow of a nazir, to consecrate themselves to G-d.'” (Talmud, Nazir 4b; Sifri)

Both vows are correct! Refraining from physical pleasures, like wine, can be a sin and can also make one holy! It all depends on our ability to find the right balance of involvement in physicality. We have a body and a soul that require just the perfect balance to maintain proper wholesomeness. Asceticism is a rejection of the delights that God has created for us in this potential Garden of Eden and is a sin. Yet abuse of these pleasures leads to destruction of our Godly souls, as well as our bodily health! At the moment we see that we are out of balance, we need to “err” more to the other side. If we have become overly “angelic,” then that is a sure sign we need a nice glass of wine. If we are abusing alcohol, this is the time to become more like the angels, who only pretend to eat and drink, but in reality abstain.

“The Torah of God is whole, restoring the soul”- The Torah is the ultimate self-help manual. Everything has its time and place, leading us to wholeness. May God grant us the wisdom to discern when to partake and when to abstain.


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