Naso 5778

D'var Torah | Numbers

He could not drink wine. He could not cut his hair. He could not attend a funeral. And it would cost him significant money for the sacrifices that relieve him from these restrictions. So why would anyone want to become a Nazirite? Is because the Nazirite, like a priest, was holy to God. (Compare Leviticus 21:6 with Numbers 6:8). In fact, the Nazirite was more comparable to the high priest: neither could be contaminated with the dead of an immediate family member, the head was the focus of the sanctity of both (the high priest wore a special diadem and the Nazirite had to grow his hair), and intoxicants were proscribed throughout the term of service. No wonder, then, that by the close of the Second Temple period, the popularity of Naziriteship was immense, particularly since the rabbis ruled that the cost of the terminal sacrifices could be paid by others.


Even so, the rabbis were not enthusiastic about the practice. To the layman, become a Nazirite was a way for the non-priest to attain a heightened state of holiness. To the rabbis, however, becoming a Nazirite was a wasteful and non-productive imitation. As Jacob Milgrom notes that the priest’s service was lifelong while the Nazirite’s was temporary and the priest conveyed the peoples’ petitions to God as well as mediating God’s Torah to the people. The Nazirite, however, owes no service to either God or to the people. The Nazirite serves himself and no one else. The true gauge of holiness, Milgrom argues, is not a matter of fulfilling one’s own spiritual elevation but in benefitting others. The better way of expressing personal commitment is in service to humanity. That is why the Mishnah at the end of the tractate Sotah (9:9) places diligence in the performance of one’s obligations ahead of piety.


That some people today still search for personal spiritual fulfillment is laudable. It is certainly preferable to those who are content to live their lives with no spiritual component. But the lesson from the Nazirite is that the finest form of personal spiritual fulfillment is in alleviating the plight of the underprivileged, in fulfilling the needs of the hopeless and the helpless. You best elevate yourself by raising up others.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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