June 15, 2000
Two words work to keep us from deeper, more spiritual lives: if only. Sometimes it seems that life would be more meaningful, spiritual and religious, if only we could find the time. If only we could separate ourselves from our day-to-day concerns. If only we could tune out the noise of the world and concentrate. If only the phone would stop ringing. If only we didn't have to worry about the bills. If only everyone would just leave us alone.
This week, the Torah introduces us to a type of person seeking an extra level of holiness. In biblical times, a Nazirite would voluntarily take a vow to adopt extreme limitations on his behavior and accept three types of restrictions: he wouldn't eat grapes or grape products, wouldn't cut his hair, and would avoid any contact with a dead body. For a minimum of 30 days - sometimes for much longer - the Nazirite led a life of careful avoidance of these activities.
Why these three restrictions in particular? Traditionally, the Nazirite vow is understood as an effort to transcend some of the baser and more materialistic forces of the world in favor of greater spirituality. Spiritually vacuous temptations abounded in ancient days - just like today. By curtailing his alcohol consumption (no grape products) and abandoning physical vanity (no haircuts), the Nazirite tried to remove himself from some of the more tangible examples of worldliness. And by avoiding contact with corpses, he did away with physical reminders of human mortality, which might spiral into hopelessness or emotional paralysis. In this biblical form of asceticism, the Nazirite freed himself from encountering everyday physicality.
Why would someone take on such a vow? The Nazirite needed a change in his life. A jump-start toward holiness. Perhaps he knew his weaknesses with some of the baser pleasures of life - as many of us do - and needed more boundaries than society's typical rules offered him. Perhaps he sought a closer relationship with God - as do many of us - and saw the threefold abstinence as a way of reaching for that higher kedusha (holiness). Or maybe the Nazirite simply looked around him and saw a world unable to transcend the physical, and he sought, in his vow, an escape.
Whatever the motivations of the Nazirite, the Torah seems to applaud his efforts. He is called "holy to God," and "one who does something astounding."But then something even more astounding occurs. At the end of the abstinence period, what does the Nazirite do? Does he throw a party? Does he recite a blessing? What would you do, after it was all over? How would you mark the moment? The Torah tells us what the Nazirite has to do: After abstaining, he is obligated to bring a sin-offering to God.
Why? How has the Nazirite sinned? What has he done wrong? Remarkably, the sin - according to some traditional interpreters - is in becoming a Nazirite in the first place. Yes, he's "holy" - but holy with a price. The requirement for a sin-offering reveals the Torah's critique of the Nazirite's extremism. With his vow, a Nazirite avoids pleasures as well as risks. Wine, while potentially dangerous, is also a source of holiness and conveyor of joy. Cutting one's hair is a symbol of participation in society - a significant Jewish value. And exposure to death is an essential part of life; contemplation of mortality leads many people to greeting life with increased passion and meaning.
What is holiness? Is it a life of quiet meditation, separation from the world, all soul and no body? Not to the Jewish mind. The Nazirite teaches us that the holiest moments come from engagement, from taking risks and surviving them, from facing the hardest challenges. If only we can find holiness in everything we do.
Shawn Fields-Meyer of Los Angeles is rabbi of Congregation Etz Hadar in Redlands. She is instructor of liturgy at the Ziegler School