Parshat Naso: Wine or Wine not? Lessons from the Negligent Nazir

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Tamar Green Eisenstat (Midreshet Lindenbaum 1991) is a New York-based attorney and student at Yeshivat Maharat.

This week’s parsha, Parshat Naso, includes an in depth look at the ascetic life of the Nazir, including instructing us on how a person becomes a Nazir, what a Nazir must do when their cycle of Nazirut ends, and what a Nazir can and cannot do during their cycle of Nazirut, including the prohibitions on: consuming alcohol/grape products, cutting or shaving the Nazir’s hair and coming into contact with dead bodies. 

In the midst of this overview, a perplexing rule is found in verse eleven: if someone dies in front of a Nazir, the term of Nazir’s cycle ends immediately, and after the regular purification process for coming into contact with a corpse is complete, the Nazir must then bring multiple sacrifices to a priest in order to seek out a special atonement for the soul – “וכפר עליו מאשר חטא על־הנפש”. Only then may the Nazir restart their Nazirut term afresh. 

But why exactly is the corpse-defiled Nazir being punished so heavily for something that is not their fault?  A Nazir may be able to avoid going to a cemetery or visiting a deathbed, but how is a Nazir supposed to prevent someone from unexpectedly dying in front of them? 

In shedding light on this pasuk, Rashi explains that the Nazir in question is punished because they had not been vigilant enough in guarding against defilement by a corpse – “שלא נזהר מטמאת המת”, ie that the gravity Nazir’s oath is such that a person should go above and beyond to the highest degree in order to avoid any possible situation in which they could encounter a corpse.

Rashi continues by citing the renowned statement of Rabbi Elazar ha-Kappar (Sifrei Bamidbar 30, Talmud Bavli Nazir 19a, 22a, and Taanit 11a) that the sin of the corpse-defiled Nazir is that “they afflicted themselves by abstaining from the enjoyment of wine” – “שצער עצמו מן היין”.  

This statement seems puzzling – what does a Nazir’s requirement to avoid corpse-defilement have to do with a Nazir giving up alcohol?  And since when do we punish people for not drinking alcohol for pleasure, especially as we know from the Midrash that Rabbi Elazar ha-Kappar was not exactly lackadaisical when it comes to alcoholic consumption, as he remarked: “When wine enters, a secret comes out” “נכנס יין שהוא שבעים, ויצא סוד שהוא שבעים”  (Midrash Tanchuma on Parshat Shemini 7:6)? 

In explaining Rabbi Elazar ha-Kappar’s statement, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, the Kli Yakar, emphasises that becoming a Nazir is not an especially praiseworthy vow to take on, and it should only be undertaken in very narrowly tailored situations, eg to help a person work on a specific character flaw.  Indeed, he states that regular people, already deeply immersed in Torah and Mitzvot, absolutely do not need such additional ascetic stringencies in order to serve Hashem at the highest levels, as he states in his commentary to verse 11:

  “כי אילו היה איש תם וישר מכלכל דבריו במשפט לא היה צריך לנדור ולהזיר”

As such, there is nothing per se admirable about giving up earthly pleasures such as drinking wine, and if anything, these abstinences are considered problematic behavior that open a person up to temptation.  Consequently, even seemingly low stakes failings, like unexpectedly being present when someone passes away, become incredibly concerning in the face of a less than ideal oath. As the Kli Yakar writes:  “כי אילו היה שמח בנזירות זה היה נזהר בשמירה יתירה מן הטומאה” ie. if the Nazir had been happily absorbed in their Nazirut practices, they would have been extra scrupulous to avoid encountering any possible impurity.

 Although the life of the Biblical Nazir seems somewhat antiquated and alien to us, our lives during the COVID epidemic have some parallels to ascetic regimes.  Indeed, many aspects of our smaller and quieter lives over the past fifteen or so months have started to look hermitic: from our unkempt hairdos, to our pared-down clothing choices, to our startlingly few in-person social encounters.  Infact, certain parts of this slower, more insular lifestyle have started to become second nature, so much so that it may be hard to entirely let go of this new routine when the world opens up again.  However, as we propel ourselves forward, we must remind ourselves of the teachings of Rabbi Elazar ha-Kappa as interpreted by the Kli Yakar, that the ascetic life, while of import in certain narrow situations – such as during a mandated lockdown – is absolutely not the ideal way to live, and that as and when the world returns to “normal”, we have an obligation to get back out there and enjoy and share the pleasures of this world in a safe and healthy way. L’Chaim!

Shabbat Shalom!


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