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Parashat 05/21/2010

Parashat Naso
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

One of the sections of this week’s Parashah deals with the laws of the nazir (Nazirite).  The root of the word nazir is z-r and it has two basic meanings which don’t appear to be related.  One meaning is a crown or an encircling border; the table with the showbread is to have a zer zahav, a golden border around it.  In this meaning the root refers to the crown of hair which the nazir is forbidden to cut for the duration of the chosen period of nazirut.  The other meaning is something strange, foreign or separated from the normal; a non-Kohen is described as a zar vis-à-vis the Temple service and certain other aspects of the priesthood.  Indeed Rashi comments on the verse that introduces this section that nezirut means separation.  Perhaps the connection between the two ideas is that an encircling border makes a separation between inside and outside, but I haven’t seen any commentary that discusses the linguistic similarity.

I would like to focus on the idea of separation, especially as it pertains to our approach to life and to our service of Gd.  There is another root that we have discussed which also contains the idea of separation, and that is k-d-sh, the root of the word kadosh (holy).  If something is kadosh it is separated and consecrated for a specific purpose.  It transcends the ordinary; it partakes of infinity and is therefore naturally aloof from the finite.  Something that is zar on the other hand is separated more as a matter of will; it is not naturally separated.  Thus, for a nazir to become a nazir, it is necessary to take a vow of nazirut, and the vow must be stated clearly and explicitly.  If there is any doubt as to the vowers intentions, the vow does not take effect.  This is because the nazir is not intrinsically different from a non-nazir.  Rather the nazir must take an action to distinguish himself.

I think this is why although superficially some of the nazirut restrictions resemble the restrictions on the Kohanim, they are generally even more stringent.  Thus while the Kohanim are forbidden to become impure through contact with a dead body, an ordinary kohen is allowed to attend to the burial of his 7 closest relations (wife, father, mother, brother, never-married sister, son, daughter).  A nazir is forbidden from any contact with a corpse, even of his or her parents.  A Kohen is intrinsically holy; Gd has consecrated him to perform the Temple service, and this holiness is passed down from father to son.  The Kohen certainly has to work on his spiritual standing, but he possesses an intrinsic holiness that sets him apart from the rest of humanity.  Not so the nazir – he or she must act to become a nazir, and therefore to be separate from the world of ordinary activity.  It is a separation that is earned so to speak, rather than inherited.  (I would add that this is not a hard-and-fast rule.  A non-Kohen is a zar by birth, and certainly one can sanctify his life, behavior and thinking by dint of effort and discipline.  Nevertheless, the distinction between intrinsic separation and willed separation is, I believe, valid and useful.)

I heard a similar idea recently in a lecture by R. Frand.  There is a difference in the havdalah ceremony at the end of Shabbat and at the end of a Festival.  We use spices on Shabbat, but not on the Festivals.  The reason generally given is that on Shabbat we have an “extra soul” (neshamah yeteirah) – an added sensitivity to the dimension of holiness, and we need the spices to revive ourselves as it departs after Shabbat is over.  On Festivals we don’t have this neshamah yeteirah, so we don’t need the spices.

R. Frand gave a different explanation.  We in fact do have a neshamah yeteirah on both Shabbat and Festivals.  The difference is that on Shabbat it comes to us automatically, just as Shabbat itself comes automatically.  We see this in the Kiddush and during the Shabbat Amidah, where we say “Blessed are You Gd, who sanctifies the Sabbath.”  The Sabbath has intrinsic holiness; Gd sanctifies it and we enjoy the results.

The Festivals, on the other hand, depend to a certain extent on us.  The Festivals depend on the sanctification of the New Moon, which fixes the first day of the Jewish month, and we (the community of Israel) do this sanctification.  Even though the astronomical process of the moon’s orbit is obviously out of our hands, it is up to the Sanhedrin to announce the beginning of the month based on the testimony of witnesses (and also to intercalate the Second Adar in leap years as need be).  The fact that we now have a fixed calendar does not vitiate this discussion – it was promulgated by a Sandhedrin some 1600 years ago, so the proclamation of the New Moons is still a human activity.  As we say in the Festival Kiddush and Amidah, “Blessed are You Gd who sanctifies Israel and (the Festival).”  Because of this, the neshamah yeteirah of the Festivals is earned, and therefore stays with us even after the Festival is over.

Our Sages tell us that the Jewish people are intrinsically holy, and it is our mission to bring that holiness into a world that seems to get further and further away from that ideal every day.  And just as Gd is separate from the entire finite creation, yet is constantly engaged with it, we too have to keep ourselves separate from the world, while at the same time being engaged with it.  Both as individuals and as a community, we need to remind ourselves at all times that the world is not our real home; we are just passing through here temporarily, as we learned in Parashat Behar.  Yet while we are here, we must act, and act in a way that is in accord with the Will of the Creator.  To paraphrase the commercial, we have to become holy the old-fashioned way – we have to earn it.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 1

Last week, right before Shavuot, we finished the 6 chapters of Pirke Avot; now we cycle back to the first chapter, and we will continue cycling until Rosh Hashanah.

Mishnah 14:

[Hillel] used to say:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

And if I am for myself, what am I?

And if not now, when?

One could write volumes on this famous aphorism of Hillel’s.  The first line urges us that we must take responsibility for our own lives and our own improvement.  Ultimately, nobody can do anything for us, other than perhaps preparing an environment for us that is conducive to growth.  But we stand or fall on our own actions.  On the other hand, the second line tells us that we cannot just live our lives in some kind of splendid isolation.  We are part of a family, a community, the world, the Creation, and we do have a responsibility to those levels of organization as well.  Ultimately there are limits to individuality; on the deepest level everything comes from the infinite and everything is connected on that level.