Nasso 5777 - 3 June 2017 - NazaRites

Post date: Jun 1, 2017 8:15:14 PM

Parshat Nasso, Numbers 4:21 - 7:89

This week, we read parshat Nasso, notably the longest parsha in the Torah. Along with explicating a number of laws and statutes, the parsha contains a detailed description of the Nazarite vow. The Nazarites were a self-selected group of Israelites who dedicated their lives to Temple service. Many faith traditions have such a group, like monks and nuns in Catholicism. Nazarites took a vow, which prohibited them from cutting or shaving their hair, coming into contact with a dead body, drinking any form of alcohol, and not consuming grapes in any form.

Several famous Nazarites have existed in Jewish history, including Samson. The root of Nazir is נזר (nun-zayon-resh). Sources indicate that it has the more general meaning of “to consecrate, separate or dedicate oneself.” The same root is used in two different places – once in Bereshit (Genesis) and once in Devarim (Deuteronomy) – to describe Joseph. The phrase used is translated as “… on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of the prince among his brethren,” and it is the same phrase used in both Bereshit and Devarim. Joseph can be thought of as “separated” from his brethren, as he was the favorite son of Jacob.

What does it mean to be separated out, and to have a life dedicated to service? Nazarite vows seem highly restrictive. The Torah specifies that Nazarites were not permitted to mourn in the same way as other Israelites – they were not permitted to “become unclean” even upon the death of a close family member. In addition, both men and women are explicitly permitted in the Torah to take a Nazarite vow – an interesting case of equality in the treatment of men and women in ancient Israelite society.

So, it seems that a life of service is something that anyone (male or female) can take on, a life dedicated to abstention from indulgence, and a life of sacrificing one’s personal wants in order to serve God and the community. Why does one choose this life? What motivates some individuals to make a choice toward such restrictive way of living? In our society today, many people ask the same question of those who choose a life in a monastery or abbey.

I wonder if, in large part, the attraction to restriction is actually an attraction to structure. For many of us, externally imposed structure can have an organizing, calming, and focusing effect. Knowing what the rules are, what the schedule will be, and what expectations will be made of us can allow us to feel settled, safe, and in control. Perhaps it is this feeling of safety that motivated some Israelites to take on the Nazarite vow.

Today, we have no such equivalent of a Nazarite vow. As we have no Temple for individuals to serve in, there is no way to dedicate one’s life to service as the ancient Israelite Nazarites did. However, we can all find a similar set of organizing rules, clarity of expectations, predictability, and safety in rabbinic law. The Talmud provides exactly the kind of structure that allows many people to thrive – the where’s, what’s, when’s, who’s, and how’s of daily life are written out in excruciating detail. Similarly, the rhythm of daily prayer within the structure of the Jewish year provides a schedule and a known set of expectations.

I know for myself when I am feeling lost or overwhelmed or disorganized, that one of the most grounding activities is to find a synagogue and attend minyan. The predictability and the familiarity help me to become organized, calm, and focused. I wonder if I would have made a good Nazarite – or, would I have rebelled against the restrictive and rigid lifestyle? Finding a balance between structure, organization, and predictability on the one hand, and freedom, creativity, and spontaneity on the other is certainly a challenge in our modern, American society. Perhaps in a time of instant communication and personalized delivery services for everything from toilet paper to produce, we can all strive for a bit more structure and a bit more of our lives dedicated to service.

-Yvonne Asher, PhD.