Parshat Naso: Why Do We Go To Extremes?
Rabbanit Sally Mayer is the Rosh Midrasha of Midreshet Lindenbaum‘s Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program
Parshat Naso describes the option to become a nazir, prohibiting oneself from drinking wine (and even eating grapes!), cutting one’s hair and participating in the funeral even of the closest relatives. Two of these restrictions parallel those of the Kohanim, taken to the extreme – while a regular Kohen may attend the funeral of his close relatives, a nazir may not, similar to the Kohen Gadol. A regular Kohen may not drink wine when serving in the mishkan but may generally enjoy wine and certainly grapes. The restriction from cutting hair, however, does not parallel the Kohanim; in fact Kohanim must be well-groomed. What is the nazir trying to accomplish? Moreover, does the Torah consider this choice positive or negative?
The Sages of the Talmud debate this very question (Taanit 11a). Rabbi Elazar praises the nazir for seeking more holiness in his life, emulating the kohanim and even going further. Rabbi Elazar HaKapar, on the other hand, argues that the nazir sins when he deprives himself of wine, and understands the chatat (sin-offering) that he brings as atonement for that sin. What is behind this debate?
Rabbi Elazar, arguing that the nazir is holy, believes that in striving to reach a higher level of holiness, taking on elements of kehunah, even temporarily, is spiritually valuable. We may not be able to be kohanim gedolim, but perhaps experiencing that for a month will help us adjust our priorities more to the spiritual than to the mundane matters which so often consume our time and resources. Perhaps the growing of one’s hair is a way of cutting off from the physical, expressing that it doesn’t matter what others think when they look at us, and focusing our attention inward. If we could keep it forever, we would, but we do need to go back to regular life, hopefully inspired by the experience.
Rabbi Elazar HaKapar says absolutely not – extremes are something we can tolerate as a temporary outlet, but that is not the ideal at all. While the Torah recognizes that instinct and creates a place for it, by requiring a sin-offering the Torah communicates that this is not the way things ought to be. Use that time to straighten out your priorities, says the Torah, but truly the ideal is not to need that extreme state; rather, we should live in the world and serve Hashem while still connected to our families and to the physical world.
Which approach should we follow? Perhaps the end of the parsha can offer an answer. The Torah dedicates many verses to describing the offering that each tribe’s Nasi (prince) brought to the mishkan. But they are all the same! Why not describe the first one and then say that each Nasi brought the same as the one before? Perhaps the Torah is hinting that the real ideal is to find personal meaning in our everyday life of mitzvot, even when we are doing the same service as the person next to us. While it is natural to seek change and novelty, the ideal is to find the newness from within. We can look at our tefilah anew every day even as we say the same words, focusing on what is needed today in our families, our communities, and the world. We observe Shabbat each week, and each time appreciate the spiritual nature of the day in a different way. Chessed can be novel as we look for new opportunities to reach out to those in need, emotionally or physically. Finding personal inspiration even as we observe the same mitzvot is the challenge and opportunity of a Torah lifestyle.