this weeks Parsha we find the laws of the Nazir, one who
accepts upon himself an ascetic lifestyle, refraining from grapes,
grape products and haircuts, and committing not to become ritually
defiled through coming in contact with a corpse.
At the conclusion
of the Nazir's period of exclusion he must perform a many faceted
ritual. The ritual includes offering a Korban Chatas. A Chatas,or
sin offering, is brought after someone has committed some wrong,
generally after unintentionally transgressing a command that carries
Korais (spiritual excision) as the penalty for willful violation.
What is confounding here is that, not only has this Nazir apparently
not violated any serious command, but further, the Torah begins
its discussion of Nazirus by saying Speak to the people of Israel
and say to them; a man or women who take an oath to become a Naizr
to Hashem. At a later point the Torah says
All the days of his Nazirus he is Kadosh to Hashem. In Amos
we find I will establish from amongst your sons Prophets and
from amongst your Nezirim. These all suggest that the Nezirus is
L'shem Shamayim and desirous in Hashem's eyes. Why then the
necessity of a sin offering?
Many of commentators
on the Torah grapple with this problem. The most common response
to the question is based on a statement of the Tanna, Rabbi Elazar
Hakaphar: "Because he denied himself wine" (Nazir
19a). This is generally understood to reflect the theology that
people should not deny themselves use of Hashem's creation. He wants
us to use whatever he has permitted and to sanctify it. The Nazir
has taken something which was permitted and should have been sanctified,
and separated himself from it. This is wrong and he therefore must
bring a Chatas. Regarding a Nazir the sages say Anyone who sees
a Sotah in her degradation should become a Nazir from wine. Although
it is generally sinful to deny yourself that which is permitted,
there are times when a person feels that they have lost control
of their nature and must take a radical path to right their ship.
His path is therefore L'Shem Shamayim and sinful at the same time.
Although this is not the path the Torah prefers at times, due to
a persons weaknesses, it is the correct path to take. This theology
of the Torah would then stand starkly opposed to others who maintain
that holiness can only be achieved through a rigorously ascetic
A radically different
understanding of Nezirus was first presented to me by the late Rosh
Hayeshiva of Novhardok, Rav Bentzion Brook ZT'L. Rav Bentizon often
spoke of his time as a young student at Novhardok. Before the war
Novhardok was a well established Mussar Yeshiva, known for its radical
approach to ethical development. Students were continuously urged
to face their failings and to take dramatic action to overcome them.
On that particular day, he told of students, many of them thirteen,
fourteen or fifteen years of age, who would sneak over the border
from Russia to Poland to start up new branches of the Yeshiva. The
students were young and many of them were homesick. They were afraid
that if they gave into their homesickness they would never accomplish
their mission, which was to establish as many Yeshivos as they could
( within a few years, over eighty yeshivos were established). Because
of their devotion to their mission and their sense of its sacredness
many of them made a pact that they would tear up their identity
papers when they crossed the border to nip in the bud any chance
that they would give in to their weakness and fail their mission.
Without identity papers there was no chance of ever returning home.
Rav Bentzion used
this example to suggest that making resolutions to deny yourself
something that might lead you astray is an important tool for spiritual
growth. I approached him after the lecture and asked him how what
he had said was consistent with the message the Torah seemed to
be conveying regarding the Nazir which is that Hashem does not want
us to deny ourselves that which is permitted. True, it may be necessary
for someone in an extreme circumstance to temporarily commit to
being a Nazir, but that is not the optimum path. Rav Bentzion smiled
and told me to learn the Ramban's commentary on the Nazir. According
to the Ramban the reason that the Nazir brings the Chatas is because
he is stepping down from his Nezirus. The sinfulness is the
choice to leave that holy lifestyle. I was embarrassed and shocked.
I was embarrassed because I had not seen the Ramban and shocked
by how radically different it was from the other commentators' positions.
How can one reconcile two such radically different positions. On
the one hand there are those who assert that except for extenuating
circumstances one should not become a Nazir and that the ascetic
lifestyle is sinful. On the other hand there is the Ramban, who
is of the opinion that not only is it not sinful, but quite the
opposite, it is the choice lifestyle and that leaving it is sinful.
I recently found
what for me has reconciled these two widely divergent opinions.
The Netziv in his Haemek Davar, in the midst of a discussion about
the prohibition of the Nazir becoming Tameh Mes (impure due to contact
with a dead body), suggests that there are two types of Nazir. Type
A is a person dedicated to spiritual growth with his goal perhaps
prophecy. Type B is the person who feels that his life is temporarily
out of control. Type A is the person about whom it is said Nazir
to Hashem and about whom it is written in Amos
I will establish from amongst your sons Prophets and from amongst
your youths Nezirim. Type B is the person who has taken his
vow because he saw a Sotah in her degradation.
I would like to
suggest that it is regarding the Type B Nazir that Rabbi Elazar
Hakaphar says that he brings the Chatas because of his having denied
himself wine. His Nezirus was for an original lack of control. Had
he been able to remain on an even keel he would have never become
a Nazir and would never have needed to prohibit these things upon
himself. It is therefore due to his failing in ethical development
that he refrained from that which is permitted and he must therefore
bring a Chatas. The Type A Nazir however is choosing a lofty path
to the most elevated of spritual lifestyles and connection to Hashem.
He doesn't choose it for lack of a solid character, quite the opposite.
He chooses it for the loftiest of reasons. For him what is sinful
is not the life of Nazirus, but his choice to leave it.
Those young Novhardokers
chose to live their lives like the Type A Nazir and Rav Benzion
was urging us to do the same.
Parsha Encounters is ©
1998 by the Chicago Community Kollel
Published June 4, 1998