Parshat Naso: Limitless Love?

Parshat Naso: Limitless Love?

We ought to enjoy our good lives, accept Hashem’s gifts every day, perpetually, and thank Him for them. On the other hand, we should also remember that we were given a role in this world, and that we aren’t like the beasts of the field, driven solely by our instincts. “Can the two walk together unless they are in agreement?” (Amos 3:3)

Yisrael Avital is the Principal of the Derech Avot Junior High School 

The three signs of nezirut – Naziritism – are revealed in our Parsha: letting one’s hair grow wild – foregoing beauty and keeping away from carnal attractions; refraining from drinking wine – depriving oneself of the opportunity to become drunk and lose control over one’s evil inclination; and taking on the prohibition of becoming impure for the dead – keeping away from soulless bodies. Naziritism is when one deliberately and consciously assumes an extreme state of abstinence and asceticism. The Torah uses phrasing that seems to suggest something that goes beyond the text – “When [either a man or a woman] shall clearly utter a vow”, and our rabbis disagree over whether this situation is ideal.

Rabbi Elazar HaKappar the Great says: What is the meaning when the verse states: “And he will atone for him for that he sinned by the soul [nefesh]” (Numbers 6:11). But with what soul did this Nazirite sin? Rather, the Nazirite sinned by the distress he caused himself when he abstained from wine, in accordance with the terms of his vow.

Rabbi Elazar says: One who accepts a fast upon himself is called sacred, as it is stated with regard to the Nazirite: “He shall be sacred, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long” (ibid. 6:5). And if this Nazirite, who distressed himself by abstaining from only one matter, wine, is nevertheless called “sacred”, then with regard to one who distresses himself by abstaining from every matter, all the more [so should he be considered sacred]. (Taanit 11:61)

Rambam (Maimonides) contradicts himself in his comments on this issue. One the one hand, he calls a person who abstains from drinking wine “sacred”, while on another occasion, he states:

Lest a person state that since envy, greed, honor and so forth are the ways of evil and they will remove a person from this world, I will fully separate myself from them and reach their utmost extreme in doing so, to the point that he will eat no meat, drink no wine, marry no woman, dwell in no comfortable quarters, dress in no proper clothes but in a sack and coarse wool, and the like, as heathen priests do. This, too, is an evil way, and it is forbidden to follow this path. He who does is called a sinner… and the sages had forbidden this.

There are two extreme ways of living in this world: living a life of spirituality while fully abstaining from any part of the material world through asceticism, deprivation, and fasting, or giving one’s animal inclination free reign and indulging in eating, drinking, sinning, etc.

I presume that most of us would automatically exclaim that one should follow the middle path, but what is this “middle path”? Is it a point on the spectrum where we give up on spirituality, though we stop short of allowing ourselves to enjoy the world we live in?

I believe that we must be able to contain these two opposite states within us and engage in a perpetual dialogue between the two. These extreme ends are legitimate worldviews. They are antithetical yet complementary (or struggle against each other). We will find these contrasts in various forms, such as love and limits, material and spirituality, the pure and the impure, the sacred and the profane, or the Creator and the created.

In other religions, humankind is either elevated to divine status, or utterly nullified in the face of the divine. In Judaism, we have the commandment of yir’at Hashem – the fear of God – yet we are also expected to say that the world was created for our sake, and we therefore must toil to fix and enhance the Creator’s creations, and complete them, so to say. There are religions that deify material possessions, and others that completely bar any form of materialism. Some religions will absolve anything through a cursory penance procedure, while others believe that only death will bring about forgiveness. In Judaism, it’s a bit of both. The sacred and the profane coexist, as do wine and the Sabbath, the evil inclination and the means to succumb it, and the understanding that a person may sins alongside the knowledge that one has the power to correct and repent.

These contrasts should maintain their character, and not nullify themselves in the face of their counterpart. By pairing contrasts and extreme ends, we create harmony – not by trying to approach some kind of spineless “middle road” which is devoid of any character. It’s about finding the “golden mean”, not embracing mediocrity.

Nowhere is this paradox expressed more beautifully than in the Sabbath. One the one hand, we have a “microcosm” of the World to Come: special prayers, and Torah study out of a feeling of joy and contentment. On the other hand, we are commanded to make a blessing over wine, we are obligated to eat three meals, and all week, we save up and work hard, all in honor of the Sabbath.

This harmony between contrasts can be likened to the color grey.  Grey can be prosaic and dull, and it goes without saying that no one would want to describe their lives in shades of grey. Yet if we peer closer at the shade of grey I’m referring to, we’ll see that it is made of zillions of beautiful white spots juxtaposed with clearly defined black spots, which, together, form a splendid, radiant grey.

To me, this is a reference to the world of education, the world of which I’m a part. An educator can contain these contrasts. The educator must always love and express that love, while constantly setting boundaries, being stern, and speaking unambiguously. Some mistakenly believe that setting boundaries is, as a matter of course, a form of punishment that is decidedly negative – but this is not the case. Setting boundaries is the vital complement to love.

A somewhat wishy-washy mother and a rather stern father, and vice-versa, can sometime complete each other in the way they educate their children, yet a lack of coordination or proportion could put a lid on our pedagogical efforts. If there is an understanding of the need for both approaches, and if the parents are synchronized, children are raised in a loving yet clearly delimited environment. On the other hand, we must also ensure that each parent can embrace these two opposites, and not completely forego the other side of the sympathetic yet stern educator.

Complicated? Yes, a bit. But who says education is easy? We must, however, teach education and talk about it, and in doing so, we can attain the harmony necessary for educating optimally. All we need to do is think about our different children and students who require different degrees of affection and boundaries, for us to understand that to properly educate each child, we need the skills of a tightrope walker. Boundless love is just as destructive as loveless boundaries – that’s not education, it’s conditioning.

Nazirites chose an extreme position, but as long as it’s for a clearly defined and time-delimited purpose, Naziritism can be a decent temporary solution. In education, too, the left hand must, on a rare occasion, drive away resolutely, but this must be a tactic used for a defined goal, and for the short term. It must not be a person’s general outlook on life. Our sages use of the phrase “Always have the left hand drive [sinners] away and the right draw them near” – i.e. always use both hands, simultaneously.

God created the world to benefit His creations. We ought to enjoy our good lives, accept Hashem’s gifts every day, perpetually, and thank Him for them. On the other hand, we should also remember that we were given a role in this world, and that we aren’t like the beasts of the field, driven solely by our instincts.

I will conclude with the Priestly Blessing, which also appears in the week’s Parasha: “May Hashem bless you and keep you” – “May Hashem bless you”, with the material blessings that appear in the Torah; “… and keep you” – may He keep you falling into the clutches of the lusts that you are drawn to by your evil inclination.

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