D’var Torah

Parshat Nasso

Eli Maxwell Feldman


Against my father’s judgment, I’m going to make thank you’s.  He thinks that the thank you’s are the most boring part. 


And against convention, I want to do it in the beginning.  I want to thank Rabbi Feldman and Rabbi Benzaquen for helping me prepare.  And I want to thank my immediate family, and all of my family that came down, some from only a few miles, some from thousands of miles, and, I’d like to thank all of our friends who came to share this day with me.  Welcome.


Of the subjects in my Parasha, I want to speak about the Nazir.  A Nazir is a normal Jew who wants to become more holy.  After he takes the vow to become a Nazir, he cannot drink wine of any kind or come into contact with the dead, even to go to a funeral.  He is also not allowed to cut his hair. After he stops being a Nazir, he is required to bring a sacrifice, and get his hair cut.  


One of the sacrifices he is required to bring is a sin offering.  Two medieval Jewish philosophers disagreed about why this is.  One was the Rambam, Maimonides, and the other was the Ramban, Nachmonides.  The latter says that the sin is that he ceased to exist in his holy state of being a Nazir.  It is a good thing that he chose to be more holy; the problem is that he couldn’t maintain it.


The Rambam, Maimonides, takes a different approach. The Rambam says that the sin was in fact entering the state of being Nazir at all.  The Rambam’s theory is that you should always strive for balance. You shouldn’t be a very unholy Jew, but you don’t need to be over religious either. The Rambam says you should be balanced. No one needs to be extraordinary.  


The only time some one should do more than the Torah obligates, is when they’re trying to overcompensate for a problem. In the Talmud, it says that a person becomes a Nazir because they feel that they have slipped into bad habits or become unholy. Their logic is that in order to become balanced again, one must overcompensate. The Rambam says that the sin was that he did not maintain balance and had to become a Nazir.


Overcompensating to become balanced is shown in a story in the Talmud.  Shimon HaTzadic was the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, for many years. But, he didn’t like to participate in the sacrifice of the Nazir, because he thought most of the Nazirs were insincere.  But he did participate when a Sheppard with beautiful long hair came to him. He knew that the Sheppard was coming because he was a Nazir. He asked the Sheppard, “Why are you cutting such beautiful hair?” The Sheppard told a story.  He said he was once in the field, when he came across a lake. He looked in the lake, and saw his reflection. When he did, he saw how beautiful he was. But the similarity with the story of  Narcissus ends here.  But he realized that he was being possessed  by his self-absorption. So he spoke to his evil inclination, as if it were another person. He said, “Evil one. Why do you seek to glorify yourself in a world that doesn’t belong to you?” At that point, he needed to capture control over his inclination, lest he be taken over by it.  So he took the vow to be a Nazir.


The Rambam’s different perspective comes because he understands the Torah to forbid some one from separating themselves from pleasures. The only time some one should deny themselves a pleasure, is if they have a good excuse; like if someone avoids drinking, because they have to drive home. Pleasure does not need to be silenced, it only needs to be channeled. The Torah does not demand an ascetic life. We are commanded to marry, and the Talmud says that if we come across a fruit we have never tasted, we must eat it in order to enjoy the pleasures in the world.


These are the reasons that the Rambam sees the Nazir as a problem.  I hope that this is the start of a balanced life so that I will never need to overcompensate.


Shabbat shalom.