In this week’s Parasha we learn about the Nazir – a man or woman who takes upon themselves to refrain from certain normal pleasures of life for a period of time. For this abstinence, the Nazir is called “holy” as the pasuk says: “All the days of his abstinence he is holy to God” (Bamidbar 6:8). The choice to become a Nazir is certainly seen on a whole as a praiseworthy one. The Midrash even says that the Nazir is perceived to be as great as the Cohen Gadol in Hashem’s eyes (so to speak).
What is so great about this Nazir? He/she only refrains from a few things: not cutting hair, not coming into contact with the dead, and not having any wine or grape products. Why should such a seemingly insignificant abstinence be regarded as holy? Furthermore, does Judaism really promote abstinence from permissible worldly pleasures as a means of attaining holiness? Is that the holiness that the Torah espouses? Finally, the Nazir himself has to bring a number of offerings upon completion of the Nazirut, one of them being a sin offering as if he has done something wrong. How can he be holy and yet be seen as having done something wrong? What is the Torah teaching us here?
Let’s look a little deeper into this idea and hopefully learn something profound, relevant and practical for our spiritual growth.
The Ibn Ezra, 11th Century Spanish Torah giant, in his peirush on the Torah, explains that the word Nazir comes from the word Nezer – a crown – and that while the majority of people are slaves to their desires, the Nazir, through holding back, demonstrates dominion over his drives and thus wears the crown of a King, free and in control of himself rather than a slave to his lower urges.
What does this mean? To understand the Ibn Ezra’s teaching we need to go back to the original creation of man.
When Hashem formed the human being, He did so with two diametric opposites – the material, physical body on the one extreme and the lofty, holy soul on the other. The soul is sourced in Hashem Himself, as it was breathed into man from Hashem’s own ‘breath’. Breath represents essence. As such, our spiritual self, the core of who we are, is in essence an expression of G-dly holiness itself. As the Baal HaTanya, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi says (as well as many other sources): “A piece of Hashem from above, mamash”, within us. All things yearn to connect back to their source. As such, the soul yearns to connect back to Hashem. The Baal HaTanya writes in Likutai Torah that the soul is constantly yearning up towards Hashem. We would feel this yearning and be able to experience Hashem constantly if we just quieted down the background ‘noise’ that our lower self (desires, worries, rush of worldly thoughts, lower fears etc.) produces due to the fact that this holy soul is encased in a material lowly body. The body is animal-like, has animal urges and desires, and while the soul yearns to connect to spirituality, the body yearns to fulfill basic bodily cravings.
We thus find ourselves in a constant state of internal battle between our lower and higher self. Each and every day we find ourselves pulled towards all sorts of material yearnings – whether it be the desire for money, honor or even just that extra scoop of caramel chunky Ben and Jerry’s ice cream (Yum). Any desire that is physical for physical sake is rooted in the lower animalistic side of self. At the same time, we yearn to connect to truth, goodness, selfless kindness, love, peace – all examples of the daily callings of the soul to draw closer to its source in Hashem. But if Hashem created us to build a relationship of closeness with Him, then why give us the challenge and ultimately the battle which we are so prone to lose? The answer is that Hashem wants us to choose to connect to Him, choose the relationship and not be robots, connecting to him out of force. Choice requires balanced alternatives, and as such He created us with an inbuilt balanced conflict which is always tempting us to turn away from His Goodness so that, when we go with our soul, we are choosing and thus earning our connection, making it our own.
On the other hand, what happens if we always just follow our desires? What happens when we go with whatever we feel we want and can get at any given time? While this way of life is sold by marketers as ‘true freedom to be yourself’, it is in fact the opposite. One who lives like this is in fact a slave to his lower animal self, as he is locked into fulfilling its desires as they present themselves to him. He is not free at all as he attests himself to the fact that he “just has to have that . . .” or “can’t live without that . . .” In spiritual terms he has been conquered by the enemy and ruled by the Yetzer Hara – the evil inclination. He is the slave while it is the king.
The one who is victorious in the struggle and chooses what is right even if he really wants otherwise, is the truly free person. He is not being held down by his desires – he is above and beyond their grasp. He is the ruler of his urges, able to guide them in the right direction to be used for good.
With this background, we can understand the beautiful lesson in the Ibn Ezra’s words. The slightest holding back, even if it seems insignificant, as with the Nazir, has far greater reverberations than one might think. By holding back from a worldly pleasure, a person demonstrates his own true freedom from his lower self. He shows himself that he can win, that he can be the King and not the slave of his own lower self. He shows his Yetzer Harah who is in control. Just as in physical battle, when you have tasted the sweet flavor of victory, it gives you the strength to fight and win further struggles in the future. So too, in the spiritual internal battle of life, once you have held back and beaten the Yetzer Hara, you are well equipped to defeat it in the future. This is the building of true spiritual muscle and is expressed in the teaching in Pirkei Avot – “ Who is (truly) strong? The one who overcomes his Yetzer.”
The goal then of the Nazir is not merely to abstain from worldly pleasures as a goal in and of itself, but to learn how to wear the crown of self-control in life in general. As such, the Nazir needs to bring a sin offering to teach us that abstention for its own sake is not the goal. Rather it is to be seen as a tool in spiritual muscle building to ensure that when we do choose to engage in the permissible pleasures of this world, we are doing so as a soul choice, using them as vehicles to come closer to Hashem and not just because we are yielding to our lower base urges. The simple example is that of wine. According to our understanding, the Nazir holds back from the wine for a short period so that when he returns to normal life and chooses to drink the wine, it is used for Kiddush, Havdala and sanctification rather than satisfying basic urges and drunkenness. This, then, is the pathway to holiness – learning to wear the crown of self- control, or better put soul-control. Try it yourself – choose something to hold back from for a short while and see how it builds your general capacity to hold back in life in other areas where the stakes are higher. You will be surprised what an effect this can have.
May we enter into this Shabbat and the week to come with renewed inspiration and strength to fight the battle of life and succeed in achieving the freedom of soul-control.