In this week’s Parsha we read of the nazir, an individual who voluntarily takes upon himself a series of restrictions in an effort to elevate himself spiritually. For a period of thirty days, unless otherwise specified, he avoids contact with the dead, does not cut his hair, and most famously, neither drinks wine nor partakes of any grape product. This mitzvah, which is preceded in Chumash by the story of the Sotah, a woman suspected of infidelity, is one which Chazal apparently approached with two minds. This ambivalence can be traced back to our parsha, where the nazir is referred to both as “kadosh” (6:5,8) and a “chote” (6:11). Is it a salutary act to become a nazir or is it a gesture which should be discouraged?
Rashi begins his commentary on the parsha (BaMidbar 6:2), by quoting the gemara in Sota (2a) explaining the juxtaposition of Parshat Nazir with Parshat Sota. (The Torah is coming) “to teach us that the anyone who sees a Sotah in her shame will restrict himself from wine, (since wine) brings about adultery”. One might assume that the message of the gemara is in fact directed not at a woman who might betray her husband, but at the man who would seduce her, for otherwise the lesson would be for a woman who sees the Sotah, not a man. Nonetheless, this conclusion would be incorrect, as the opposite is in fact the case. The Ibn Ezra on the same passuk specifically applies the drive to Nazirut to women and not to men (the Kli Yakar makes a similar point hundreds of years later). In fact the Rambam, when codifying the halacha (Hilchot Sota 3:5) stresses that should a woman be brought to the Mikdash as a Sotah that the women in the area are required to witness her degradation, while men may do so if they wish. One way or another, at least from this perspective it is clear that the act of becoming a Nazir is seen as a reaction to sin and an attempt to prevent its repetition, and not an independent action worthy of praise. On the other hand, the gemara in Nedarim (9b) tells the story of Shimon HaTzadik meeting a young nazir who tells him how he chose to become a nazir in order to defeat his yetzer hara. Shimon HaTzadik’s reaction is to kiss him and proclaim “may nezirim like you proliferate, my son”.
When introducing the concept of Nazir, the Torah makes the following statement: Ish oh isha ki yafli lindor nedr nazir lvzir l’Hashem.” The Koran Tanach translates this verse as follows: “When either a man or woman shall pronounce a special vow of a Nazir to separate themselves to the Lord.” The term “yafli” is one which is used in number of contexts in connection to vows. (See, for example, VaYikra 22:21 and Vaikra 27:2. The section in the Rambam’s Mishna Torah dedicated to laws which are a function of vows is called Hafla’a). On our passuk, Onkelos translates the word “yefaresh”, to explain. When a person becomes a Nazir he must be cognizant of what he is taking upon himself. Therefore he must say aloud what his vow is in order that his meaning is clear. In fact, it is the use of this term in the passuk introducing the laws of Arechin, monetary self evaluation for the purpose of making contributions to the Mikdash that allows Chazal to apply the laws not only to individuals who have reached the age of majority but also to children who understand the meaning of their words and actions. Many commentators, including Rashi, the Ibn Ezra in his first explanation and Ralbag adopt this approach.
Another approach to understanding the use of this word in our context is suggested by the Ramban. The word “pele” in Hebrew can be understood as wonder or amazement. The Ramban (VaYikra 22:18) understands the Torah as telling us that it an incredible thing that Hashem will respond to the vows which we make in a time of crisis as an attempt to deal with our distress. This explanation is one which resonates within the normal neder process, the echoes of which can be found throughout Chumash. A person, dealing with crisis or stress, turns to Hashem and promises to behave in a certain fashion if Hashem protects him. We first find this in Bereishit (perek 28) when Yaakov makes his famous neder to Hashem before leaving Eretz Yisrael on his way to Padan Aram (20-22). The fact that HaShem would be receptive to this type of a vow, which at the end of the day says more about our need to feel that we are contributing toward our continued wellbeing then HaShem’s need to receive our gifts, is a “pele”, an amazing thing.
The question becomes how this approach would apply to Nezirut. After all, what is the quid pro quo that the Nazir is offering? One possibility is that the idea of the neder of Nezirut being an astonishing concept is not that it is surprising that Hashem would accept the Nezirut as atonement, but rather that it is astonishing that an individual could successfully take upon himself such a radical behavioral adjustment. We can derive support for this theory from the Ibn Ezra that we quoted above. Even though Ibn Ezra suggests that “yafli” means to explain, he proceeds to entertain the second explanation, that of “pele”. The “pele” is that despite the fact that most people are captive to their desires; this individual has separated himself (the Ibn Ezra says that this is the source of the word “nazir”, to separate) from his desires in order to serve Hashem. Since drink (wine) acts to weaken service of Hashem, by separating himself from wine and becoming a nazir he has acted to strengthen his Avodat HaShem. (See Nechama Liebowitz, Iyunim B’Sefer BaMidbar pp 62-63, for other possible sources for this idea.) If we accept the Ibn Ezra’s approach, we might then consider whether the entire Nezirut enterprise is still to be viewed ambivalently. On the one hand, a person is making a supreme effort and sacrifice to rise to a spiritual challenge. But is the choice of self-denial the preferred path?
Another way of looking at the “pele” aspect raised by the Ramban is suggested by the Netziv. He claims that the “pele” is that there is a way of doing a mitzvah, even though Hashem disapproves. Why would a neder be something that Hashem would disapprove of? The Netziv quotes the Midrash Raba (VaYikra, 36:1), which links the idea to the passuk in Kohelet (5:4) “Tov asher lo tidor mitidor ilo tishalem” “It is better not to (make a) vow than to vow and fail to fulfill”. Since making a vow always carries with it the implicit threat of failure to live up to one’s commitment, it is preferable not to make the explicit commitment and just make the intended contribution. When it comes to Nezirut, one could make the same connection. Accepting Nezirut always carries the possibility of failure. The Torah itself outlines what a nazir must do if he in fact fails to fulfill his commitment. If we were to accept this explanation, then any negativity attached to Nezirut would not be a function of the Nezirut itself, but only to Nezirut as an extension of a neder. We could, however, suggest that the Divine dissatisfaction of Nezirut posited by the Netziv is a function of Nezirut itself and not of the danger of failing to fulfill the neder. What then, would be the source of this disapproval?
The question of whether a nazir has done the proper thing by limiting himself is a famous one which is widely discussed. It is the popular notion that when an individual deprives himself of things which the Torah in principle permits, there is a taint to that person’s actions. The Rambam, when warning against acetiscm, adopts this view, (Hilchot Deot 3:1), writing that “If a nazir, who has only abstained from wine, requires atonement, how much more so for one who has abstained from many things”. The Kli Yakar goes as far as suggesting that since that the fact that a person needed to restrain himself in such a way is indicative of character flaws present in his personality.
Nonetheless, one could argue that the idea of the desirability of Nezirut is highly subjective, especially when viewed from the standpoint of the result of the Nezirut as opposed to from the perspective of its starting point. In the second perek of Hilchot Deot, the Rambam describes the procedure through which an individual whose behavior is skewed from the ideal can moderate his conduct until the appropriate balance is achieved. Nezirut, when properly undertaken, accomplishes the same goal. An individual who previously was buffeted by the force of his desires now uses a temporary abstention as a tool for retaking control of his actions and behavior. Even if we accept that there is something negative about a person being forced to take the extreme path of abstention in order to control his desires, there should be little doubt that if the result of this path is a stronger sense of self control in normal circumstances then the exercise has ultimately been a successful and positive one. So perhaps we can conclude that the two concepts of “kadosh” and “chote” are not necessarily contradictory but complementary. The “pele” is that what began as the Netziv’s negative notion of forcing Hashem to accept our action, even if it is less than ideal, can blossom into the positive suggested by the Ibn Ezra, of an individual finding the necessary strength to overcome his desires and most importantly establish a standard for the future.