The Aaronic Blessing
This week’s portion includes the laws regarding the “Nazirite” who takes an oath of abstention from wine, refrains from coming into contact with a dead body, and grows his hair wild. The Nazirite is a sort of ascetic who seeks to withdraw from some of the material concerns of daily life in an attempt to become holier.
There are many religions around the world whose focus is on asceticism. In those religions, the ideal person of faith is one who abstains from contact with the material world, including business, sexual relations, and fancy food and drink. The Bible, however, sets forth a specific formula for the ascetic to follow. He abstains from only three things – wine, contact with a dead body and hair-grooming. His period of asceticism is restricted to a specific period of time which he chooses. The ascetic period does not interfere with family life and it does not last forever.
At the conclusion of the ascetic period, the Nazirite brings two sacrifices – a sin offering and a feast offering. This, in and of itself, reflects the complexity of the ascetic period. On the one hand, the Nazirite concludes a period of holiness and he is celebrating that extra closeness to God that he has attained by bringing the feast offering. However, the sin offering indicates that there is something missing during this period; that the actions of the Nazirite may include some element of sin.
Scripture does, indeed, reflect a complex attitude toward the Nazirite, and Jewish commentaries have long debated the positive or negative value of this ascetic option. But what is so special about this chapter is the fact that it exists at all. Judaism is replete with laws and customs, most of which have either been mandated directly by the Bible or have been connected with specific Biblical imperatives. Throughout Scripture, God refers to the Jewish nation as a holy nation and enjoins His people to be holy (Exodus 19:6, Leviticus 19:2). And yet, there is no commandment anywhere to retreat from worldly activities. In fact, the Bible takes for granted and encourages marital relations, celebrations that include food and bountiful harvests. These are not the activities of the ascetic, in the standard sense of the word.
It is interesting to note that the requirement that a Nazirite abstain from wine reflects an understanding that wine is an acceptable part of ordinary life. While drunkenness is certainly not tolerated, moderate amounts of wine are taken for granted. In fact, every Jewish ceremony, from ancient times to today, includes a blessing over wine, whether it be the Shabbat and holiday meals, a wedding ceremony, or the circumcision of a baby boy.
When Scripture selects, however, a few earthly pleasures that will be foregone by the Nazirite, it selects those pleasures that are not considered essential to daily life. And wine, while permitted, is certainly not essential. Not so marital relations, for family is key in Jewish life.
Actually, the rules pertaining to the Nazirite reflect an incredible wisdom and understanding as to human nature. Generally, people are expected to aspire to holiness while carrying out their daily lives. However, the Bible recognizes that, at times, some individuals may feel the need to separate themselves from the world for a brief period, to try and attain a level of holiness which they perceive as too difficult to attain through ordinary activities. In that case, an individual is allowed to swear a Nazirite oath – but it is limited. It is limited in time and the actual areas of abstention are limited. And unlike so many other religions, a Nazirite does not abstain from marital relationships!
It is indeed a challenge to aspire to holiness while living in an incredibly secular world. But that is the ultimate challenge. While the Nazirite may have attained a higher level of holiness and, therefore, brings a feast offering, he was not able to attain that same holy level while acting within societal norms. For that reason, he brings a sin offering. But how incredible it is that the Bible has allowed for all sorts of individuals to attain holiness in the ways that best suit them.
Director, Israel Office