What is a Nazir?
Good morning! This is your local neighborhood…nazir? What’s a nazir?
In Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s modern offshoot of the Hebrew language, the word nazir is translated as priest. But we already know that biblical Hebrew refers to the priest as a kohen.
Turns out that ol’ Eliezer was a little off in his understanding. Classic, original Hebrew texts describe the nazir like this:
A man or woman who sets himself apart by making a nazirite vow to abstain for the sake of the Lord, he shall abstain from new wine and aged wine; he shall not drink [even] vinegar made from new wine or aged wine, nor shall he drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, and he shall eat neither fresh grapes nor dried ones. For the entire duration of his abstinence, he shall not eat any product of the grape vine, from seeds to skins. All the days of his vow of abstinence, no razor shall pass over his head; until the completion of the term that he abstains for the sake of the Lord, it shall be sacred, and he shall allow the growth of the hair of his head to grow wild. All the days that he abstains for The Lord, he shall not come into contact with the dead. For the entire duration of his abstinence, he is holy to the Lord.
In short: no grapes, no preening, no dead people, and God calls him holy. So far, so good, right? Except that’s when Torah throws in the monkey wrench:
This is the law of the nazirite: On the day his period of naziriteship is completed, he shall present himself at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. He shall bring his offering to the Lord… a sin offering…
Who is this nazir person anyway? Is he “holy”? Or is he someone who needs to bring “a sin offering”? Because that usually doesn’t square…
If I were Eliezer Ben Yehuda, I would probably be pretty confused, too. In a way, the nazir does sound like a Christian priest. After all, he doesn’t drink. He abstains from normal physical activities like getting a haircut. His objective in doing these things is to achieve a deeper connection with his spirituality.
The difference is that Torah doesn’t see these behaviors as altogether praiseworthy. At the conclusion of his abstention period, our nazir has to bring a sin offering as an apology to God. Why?
Turns out that the Torah’s conception of holiness is not so black and white. Rather, holiness occurs on a continuum. On one end of the continuum are the animalistic boozers whose entire lives revolve around tub-thumping from one empty lust to the next. On the other end is…?
Surprise! Not the nazir. The purpose of a nazirite vow is to help an individual disengage from too great a dependency on physical pleasures. (You know, like when you need your chocolate…) Taking a nazirite vow means enrolling in a self-help detox program. By keeping away from almost any experiences of normative physical enjoyment, the nazir develops discipline and spiritual focus.
And if that is your concept of spirituality, that’s as far as you will be able to go.
However, Torah goes much further. Is it enough to disengage from the pleasures of the world? Not quite. That sin-offering is commanded for a reason. Discipline is not meaningful in and of itself. Thinking about God is nice, but insufficient. What does real closeness to God look like? Expect the unexpected…
100% Pure Spirituality
Here’s the rule of thumb: closeness in the physical world is measured by inches. Closeness in the spiritual world is measured by similarity. Rav Leib Kelemen explains that coming close to G-d doesn’t just mean dropping the pleasure addiction. It means emulating Him.
It’s a funny thought. How do you emulate the Supreme, Unknowable Source of all Being? A little overwhelming, that. Luckily, Torah gives us a clue.
It might sound like a riddle, but it’s actually the simple truth. If you were to take the deepest desire of the Almighty and translate it into physical terms, what would that look like? It would look like the Torah, filled with six hundred and thirteen mitzvos. Apparently, the Almighty performs the mitzvos. What does that mean for Him? We don’t know. But what does that mean for us?
What it means is that when we perform the mitzvos, we tap the ultimate power line of pure spirituality. We don’t just connect with our Source, we unite with Him. And what do these spiritual power lines look like in real life?
Cue drum roll… Changing diapers! The poor, helpless infant is lying soiled in her own filth, crying for aid and relief, and guess who plays the role of compassionate provider and savior? That’s right! You! (Hopefully.)
Or, take this one. Cue drum roll again… Visiting the sick! Bleeping machines, the smell of antiseptic, and the alarming, perhaps disgusting sight of human beings whose bodies have fallen apart… There is your spirituality. Not on the mountaintop.
How about the really unexpected ones? Washing the dishes after dinner so that your spouse doesn’t have to do it. Schlepping halfway across town just to find your mom the ingredient she wants from that one weird Asian foods store. Counseling a friend in crisis. Toilet training.
Now that’s spirituality.
Eat to Live
What about enjoying things like wine and chocolate not because you’re a glutton, but because it’s Shabbos? Is that spirituality?
Only you can answer that question. Like the nazir, we all must ask ourselves what we really want the wine for. Do we live to eat or eat to live? Keeping Shabbos is not intended as an excuse for animalistic indulgence. Shabbos is meant to uplift the physical, not to drag “spirituality” down to the level of Ben and Jerry’s. That’s where the concept of the nazir come in.
Sure the nazir is holy – or at least holier than he used to be. If your life revolves around things like wine and a great haircut, holiness deficiency will eventually bring you to your proverbial knees. Nobody wants that. But is physicality detox – abstaining from Kiddush wine, staying away from the sick and dying – the ultimate in closeness to God? Not at all.
So let’s help Eliezer Ben Yehuda. How would you translate the word nazir? Is being a nazir an end in and of itself as in Christian priesthood? English and modern Hebrew are both culturally Christian languages. There is no good one-word translation because Jewish spirituality does not exist in the Christian worldview.
But I’d venture to say that the word nazir means someone building the discipline and focus to eventually set off on a magnificent journey. He has not left the pier. He has not even boarded the boat. But he has stopped doing all the other things that would keep him from ever even finding it.
No, being a nazir is not an end. But it is a beginning