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Parashat Naso 5772 – 05/30/2012

Parashat Naso

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

He shall bring his offering to Hashem: one unblemished sheep in its first year as an olah, one unblemished ewe in its first year as a chatat (sin-offering)… (6:14)

   The reason for the sin-offering that the Nazirite brings on the day his period of abstinence is completed is not explained.  According to the plain meaning, this person has sinned against his soul when he fulfills his period of separation (nezirut), because now he is separating from his level of holiness and Divine Service; and it would be more fitting for him to separate himself [from the mundane] and to remain all his days as a “nazir, holy to his Gd”… [Ramban ad loc]

   R. Elazar ha-Kappar [said that the nazir is a sinner. Why?] as it was taught: And he shall make atonement for him, for that he sinned against a soul. Against which ‘soul’ then has he sinned? But it is because he afflicted himself through abstention from wine. (Nedarim 10a)

   Since Ta’avah [lust] is so bad, one might think that he should go to the other extreme and not eat meat and wine, get married, have a nice house and clothing… One who does so is called a sinner. A Nazir who denies himself wine needs atonement. (Rambam Hilchos De’os 3:1)

   The Jewish religious tradition expresses itself in a fusion of universalism and singularism.  On the one hand, Jews are vitally concerned with the problems affecting the common destiny of man.  We consider ourselves members of the universal community charged with the responsibility of promoting progress in all fields, economic, social, scientific, and ethical.  As such we are opposed to a philosophy of isolationism… which would see the Jews living in a culturally closed society.  (R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “On Interfaith Relationships,” in Norman Lamm and Walter Wurzburger, eds., A Treasury of Tradition.  Quoted by Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern in Azure magazine, Autumn 5772, No 46, p124)

   For it is a people that dwells alone, not reckoned among the nations (23:9)

   Then there are the others… They make a much bigger circle (Tevye the Dairyman)

   For you have not placed our portion with the nations of the earth… And all will accept on them the yoke of Your Kingdom (Aleinu prayer)

As you can see from the sheer volume of quotes (and I had to be quite selective!) the issue of the relationship between Israel and the wider world, and the relationship between the spiritual realm and the physical realm, is an extremely deep and, perhaps, vexing problem.  It shows up at the beginning of our existence as a people, where the outgoing nature of Avraham is contrasted with the inwardness of Yitzchak, and it is being debated to this day among various segments of the Jewish community.  Undoubtedly the debate will continue at least until the Redemption, and perhaps even beyond.  Nevertheless I would like to offer a perspective that will try to harmonize the two sides.

Jewish tradition posits two main levels of existence – the material world in which our bodies act, and a spiritual world, which our souls can sense, but which our ordinary senses usually cannot perceive directly.  As we have discussed on a number of occasions, these two “worlds” are actually different aspects, or levels, of the same unified existence, and interpenetrate one another, the way the molecular level and the atomic level of the material world are not separated in space and time, but rather only in conception.  Gd is at the basis of the entire Creation; the Creation is within Gd rather than the other way around.

As we move from the basis of creation, which is Gd, infinite, immortal, unchanging, to the surface of material creation, we find increasing diversity and an increasing level of change, or mortality.  Consider Psalm 148 (it’s too long to quote so you’ll have to look it up, it’s in the Pesukei d’Zimra section of the morning service, both daily and for Shabbat) – the first part deals with the heavens and their hosts’ giving praise to Gd.  Although the word  “Praise Him” is repeated seven times, the diversity of who is offering praise is somewhat limited.  There are several kinds of angels, but not hundreds of different kinds.  The second part of the Psalm deals with praises coming from earth.  Here, since the “distance” from Gd is much greater, “Praise Him” is only mentioned once, but the diversity of the praisers, mineral, vegetable, animal, human, social is much greater.  (In the same way, in the material world, a small number of atoms creates a much greater diversity on the molecular level, which in turn creates an even greater level of diversity of forms and phenomena on the surface level of the material world.)

Our bodies are the expression of our individual existence in the material world, and they are mortal and change throughout our lives.  Our souls are the expression of our individual existence in the spiritual world. The soul, in its essence, is described as an “actual piece of the Divine.”  In that sense it is immortal and unchanging, although on a somewhat more expressed level we can certainly refine our souls – in fact, that is what the material world is for and why the soul has been placed in it.  It is only in the material world, the world of temptation and moral choice, that we can use our free will to refine and ennoble ourselves.  This refinement, or ennobling, or expansion of our souls, leads them closer to Gd, to a kind of identification (called in Hebrew devekut, or “clinging” to Gd) of our individuality with Gd’s universality.

We see that far from denying the value of the body and the material world, or treating them as necessary evils, in constant opposition to the spiritual, Jewish thought embraces the material as the vehicle by which the spiritual can reach its highest potential.  Gd created the material world, and declared it to be very good – and our Sages tell us that the part that makes Creation very good is nothing less than the yetzer hara – the inclination to evil!  That is, by challenging us to overcome its allures, the material world becomes the vehicle for the fulfillment of the very purpose of creation.

Now we can return to the conundrum of the nazir‘s sin-offering.  The nazir has taken a vow to abstain from certain aspects of the material world – particularly wine, which our Sages describe as “delighting the heart.”  Why would one take such a vow?  The passage of the nazir comes directly after the passage of the sotah (wife suspected by her husband of adultery).  Rashi, based on the Talmud Sotah 2a, explains the juxtaposition – one who sees the sotah in her disgrace should take a vow of nezirut, for wine leads to adultery.  In another passage (Nedarim 9a), the great Kohen Gadol, Shimon haTzaddik, relates that only once did he eat the Kohen’s portion of the nazir‘s offerings.  He asked a certain young man why he had taken a vow of nezirut.  The man replied that he had caught a glimpse of himself in a pool of water and became quite vain, especially about his beautiful hair.  He at once vowed to be a nazir (which requires shaving oneself bald at the end of the term) to quell his vanity (the Jewish answer to Narcissus!).

Sometimes the world presents us with challenges that appear to be overwhelming.  I believe Torah is telling us that at such a time separation for a period is in order, so that we can focus more one-pointedly on our spiritual development.  Having done so, we can return, fortified, to the world, so that we may again use it as a vehicle for our spiritual growth, as well as lift it to a higher level, one which reflects more of Gd’s perfection.  But by specifying that at the end of the term we bring a sin-offering, perhaps Torah is telling us, according to R. Elazar haKappar, that this state of separation is not the ideal way to live.

We find the same tension in our daily lives as individuals, and in the life of the Jewish community.  In our daily lives we take time out from our engagement with the material world and focus on our spiritual selves – this is our thrice-daily davvenning.  There are times during the year, both joyous and sad, when we disengage from the material, workaday world, and take time out to consider who we are, what we are here for, how we can be better human beings and better Jews.  These times are Shabbat and Festivals, and the fast days that are found periodically in our calendar.  All of these times of separation however lead to renewed engagement with the world, an engagement that will be more full and more effective because of the gains we have made during our periods of separation.

In the community too we find those who wish to live lives completely devoted to Torah and spirituality, to insulate themselves and their communities from contact with the rest of the world.  I believe that it is necessary for the Jewish world as a whole, in order to remain healthy, for a part of our body politic to remain completely connected to the spiritual, and it is well to our benefit to support such an endeavor.  Of late the pressing question in Israel has been how large a part of the population should be engaged in this aspect of our communal life; in addition, the suspect behavior of a portion of those claiming to be devoted to the life of the spirit has put pressure on the community to cut back its support.  It may take some time and discomfort before a new equilibrium is reached, but unfortunately the present situation is probably untenable in the long term.

The Bhagavad Gita (II:48) states: Established in Being, perform action.  The ideal of life is for the individuality to be fully expanded so that it can encompass universality, so that we maintain devekut, fully expanded awareness of all the levels of the spiritual world, at all times, even while we are engaged in the activities of the material world.  This has the effect of making our every thought and action more effective, and gives us the strength and clarity to make correct moral choices at every turn – in the words of our Sages, we make our will and Gd’s Will synonymous.  On this level of unity all contradictions disappear, and we are not faced with either-or choices.  Our life ceases to be a zero-sum game between the body and soul; rather we live 100% of the spiritual values along with 100% of the material values.  It is through the regulated alternation between separation and re-engagement that we learn to merge and harmonize both poles of our existence, on both individual and communal levels.  We never separate from the state of holiness, even while we operate in the mundane world.  It is our mission as members of the Jewish people to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy people”: to create such a world for ourselves and for all humankind.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 1

Mishnah 12

Hillel and Shammai received [the tradition] from them [Shemayah and Avtalion]

Hillel said: Be of the students of Aharon, love peace and pursue peace, love people and bring them close to the Torah

As explicated by R. Lau, Moshe and Aharon represent two poles of life, Truth (Moshe) and Peace (Aharon).  The Truth is that which is never-changing; in a sense it is separate from the ever-changing realm of multiplicity.  Peace is a state of harmony, where differences are maintained, but reconciled and integrated into a greater whole.  The manifestation of Truth that we have is Torah – Hillel tells us that our job is to bring people close to the Truth, but to do so by loving and pursuing Peace.  In other words (my words, not R. Lau’s!), Hillel appears to be arguing that we must integrate the aspects of separation from and engagement with the world in our lives.  Just as Gd is absolutely separate from and transcendental to His Creation, but at the same time is intimately engaged in directing every minute aspect of it, so too we must maintain our status as infinite and unbounded at the basis of our existence, while remaining engaged with the world.