May 17 2013

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.

Feb 2 2012

A Better Understanding of Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur

Talk is Cheap- Not!
In a very short time, millions of Jews throughout the world will gather in their synagogues and listen to the soul-stirring plaintive chant of Kol Nidre. Even though Kol Nidre is technically not part of the evening service (known as “maariv” or “arvit”) of Yom Kippur it has become synonymous in popular parlance with the evening service and is certainly experienced as its emotional highlight. Yet, an examination of the words of Kol Nidre leaves one mystified. What is so inspiring about “All personal vows, oaths, and pledges… we publicly renounce…”? Not only are the words not particularly emotionally resonant, their plain meaning is far from obvious.

Kol Nidre is one of the most awesome prayers of the entire Jewish year.

The Torah addresses the issue of vows in several places: “If a man vow a vow…he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” and “When you vow a vow…you shall not delay to pay it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you and it would be a sin in you. But if you refrain from vowing, it shall be no sin in you. That which is gone out of your lips you shall keep and perform.”

The biblical book of Ecclesiastes further sharpens the sentiment: “Do not be quick with your mouth… so let your words be few…many words mark the speech of a fool. When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it… It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin…Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?

The Talmud goes one step further, declaring: “Even when one fulfills his vow he is called wicked.”

The message is unmistakable. Talk is not cheap. It is very dear indeed. Our word must be our bond. It is better not to make promises.

Is there any positive function of vows? Yes. The great sage of the Mishna, Rabbi Akiva, asserted that vows can be help to self-restraint. Precisely because of the awesome gravity by which we view our verbal commitment, such an articulation can be an effective last resort when battling weak self-control.

What is Kol Nidre? The Torah provides for mechanisms for cancellation of vows but within very specific familial circumstances or in the context of a court of law. As early as the ninth century Rabbi Amram Gaon in Babylonia pointed out that Kol Nidre does not conform to those parameters required by the Torah for the cancelation of vows.
The popular notion that Kol Nidre arose as a response to the Spanish inquisition of 1492 in order to allow for those Jews forced to vow allegiance to Catholicism to renege on that commitment is clearly false, given that it predates this event by at least 500 years!

One of the most compelling explanations of Kol Nidre was offered by Rabbenu Tam, the famous grandson of Rashi. Pointing to a comparable passage in the Talmud he suggests that Kol Nidre is not canceling past vows already uttered, but proactively clarifying the intent of promises that might be made in the coming year. They should be understood as careless formulations rather than as conscious and formal articulations of a vow. It is indeed similar to the practice of saying the Hebrew words “bli neder,” meaning “without taking a vow,” when offering to do something. It is akin to saying that we will make a good faith effort, but we value our words too much to take upon ourselves promises that we may not be able to fulfill.

From where does this reverence and care about the spoken word come? It is interesting to note that the first thing we learn about God in the Torah is that He creates, and He creates through the power of speech- “let there be light.” The pinnacle of creation is the human being, made in His image. When the Torah describes the creation of the first human being it states, “and man became a living being.” The classic Aramaic translation/commentary on the Torah called Targum Onkeles, translates this phrase, “and man became a speaking spirit.” Our capacity for speech is the reflection of our Divine image. It is the most fundamental creative capacity by which we give form to that which existed only in the potential and hidden realm of thought.

Speech is our most precious and powerful capacity. To cheapen speech is to betray our very humanity, our Divine image. Isn’t it abundantly true that many, if not most, of the difficult situations which we create for ourselves are a product of our injudicious misuse of the power of speech? Indeed, I can think of a no more appropriate way to begin the Day of Atonement than through the somber reflection on just how cheap talk is not.