Why Become A Nazir?
What It Really Means To Be A Nazarite
Parshat Naso gives us the details of a Nazir, one who consecrates himself or herself to God. But the restrictions of the nazir are pretty strange. No haircuts? Stay away from dead bodies? No wine, or even grape products? If you wanted to be close to God, wouldn't you just meditate, or pray all day?
Hi, I’m Rivky. Welcome to Parshat Naso, you are watching Aleph Beta.
Every now and then I come across random how-to articles on the internet. You know, great kitchen hacks, how to write an awesome speech, how to make DIY Marvel costumes. The usual. But sometimes, I come across things that are a little bit ...unusual. Things like how to recite the pledge of allegiance in ancient Greek, or how to blow air out of your tear ducts. Things that sort of make me scratch my head and say, Okay. Now I know. But...why would I ever want to do that?
Sometimes, when I get to Parshat Naso and I read about the Nazir, I get plagued with a similar thought.
Why Would Someone Take the Nazarite Vow Today?The Torah tells us that if you want to be a nazir, then here’s the how to: You stay away from wine and grapes, you can’t cut your hair, and you can’t come into contact with dead bodies. And that pretty much covers the basics.
Okay. Now I know. But...why would I want to do that?
All the Torah really seems to say is that these laws are the way להזיר, ליהוה – to separate yourself, somehow, for God. And that’s not all that much to go on. Like, there are a few different religions and movements that have a concept of asceticism, separating oneself from different earthly pleasures in order to focus on spirituality. And that sounds like the kind of thing you could describe as “separating yourself for God.” So is that what this is? Is the Torah saying, “If you want to be more connected to God by giving up different earthly things, here’s how to to do it – become a Nazir”?
Maybe. But I have to say, if I was in charge of designing the optimal program for reducing attachment to the physical world, and maximizing spirituality, I don’t think it would really look like this.
How Do We Understand the Nazarite Vow of Separation?Think about it: If you wanted to become more spiritual, maybe you would train yourself to stop thinking about beauty and external appearances, to focus on deeper things. But the law of the nazir only restricts hair cutting. There’s nothing about clothing or jewelry or other kinds of grooming. So how much will you really grow internally if your hair gets wild and messy, but you’re wearing diamonds all over your manicured hands?
And the same goes for the restriction on grapes and wine. You may argue that the purpose of this would be to maintain discipline and focus, and not let your mind become clouded by alcohol. But the law only prohibits grape products. Other intoxicants aren’t forbidden. So, how disciplined and focused will you really be, if you can get drunk, just not from wine?
And the last restriction – avoiding dead bodies. Dead bodies are the most powerful sources of tumah, spiritual impurity, in Jewish law. So yeah, of course someone looking to becoming more spiritual would want to avoid tumah. But there are plenty of other sources of impurity in the Torah – like, say, dead animals – and those aren’t off limits. Why not?
What Is the Nazir Vow Really About?So it doesn't seem like the nazir option is really there for those of us looking to avoid superficiality. You can’t have wine, but you can gorge yourself on other alcohols. You can’t get a haircut but you can wear beautiful, showy clothing and jewelry. You can’t become tamei through contact with the dead, but you can become tamei in any other way. This just doesn’t add up to the life of an ascetic, someone who denies himself or herself life’s physical pleasures.
But if that’s not what being a nazir is about, then what? Why else would someone opt into this three-point nazir plan, with its oddly specific restrictions?
Well, maybe the specificity of the restrictions can actually give us the answer. Think about the three prohibitions: No wine. No haircuts. No dead bodies. Haven’t we heard a lot of this before? Here’s a clue: think about that last one, that restriction on coming into contact with the dead. Who else isn’t allowed to come into contact with the dead? It’s the kohanim, the priests.
Parallels to the Nazarite Laws and Vows in the BibleRegular Kohanim are forbidden from touching most dead bodies, with the exception of immediate relatives, and the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, is not even allowed to touch immediate family members. And there’s something else too. Look at the language of this prohibition for the Kohen Gadol:
ועל כל-נפשׁת מת, לא יבא: לאביו ולאמו, לא יטמא
Don’t come close to any dead body, even your parents, don’t become [tamei for them, don't become] ritually impure.
And now, look at the Nazir:
על-נפש מת, לא יבא: לאביו ולאמו, לאחיו ולאחתו--לא-יטמא להם, במתם
Don’t come close to any dead body, even your parents or siblings, don’t become ritually impure [tamei] upon their deaths.
Look at that – it’s almost as though these laws are mirror images of each other.
And how about the rule against drinking wine? Is that a priestly law? You bet it is. Take a look at Leviticus 10, when God gives the High Priest Aaron instructions for himself and his two sons:
יין ושכר אל-תשת
Do not drink any type of wine,
אתה ובניך אתך,
you, Aaron, and your sons as well,
בבאכם אל-אהל מועד
when you approach the Tent of Meeting.
It’s the same language as the nazir, don’t drink yayin v’shechar. Just as the Nazir can’t drink wine during his or her Nezirut, kohanim are also not allowed to drink wine when they’re involved in service in the Tabernacle.
Now let’s talk about haircuts. It’s true, Kohanim are not forbidden to cut their hair, not even the Kohen Gadol. But we do know something that’s special about their heads: they wear a headcovering called a mitznefet. And the Kohen Gadol wears a little something extra, something called the tzitz, a kind of golden plate that goes over the mitznefet. Now look how the Torah describes this tzitz:
ושמת המצנפת, על-ראשו
You put the mitznefet, the headcovering, on the head of the high priest
ונתת את-נזר הקדש, על-המצנפת
And on top of the headcovering, you place the nezer hakodesh, the holy crown.
And now, look at how the Torah describes the special nature of the nazir’s uncut hair:
נזר אלהיו, על-ראשו
the crown of God is upon his or her head.
Does that ring any bells? Just like the kohen gadol, the nazir, too, wears a Godly crown, a nezer – in this case, it’s his or her uncut hair.
So all the laws of Nazir are essentially parallels to the laws of the Kohanim. And that would suggest that the purpose of a Nazir is actually...to become like a priest.
What Does It Really Mean to Be a Nazarite?It’s almost as if the Torah is saying, yes, there are these special people, called the Kohanim, and they themselves have this extra special leader, the Kohen Gadol. And these guys all have a unique channel to God, something above and beyond anyone else. And if you stopped, right there, stopped reading the Torah at the end of Leviticus, you might think 'wow.' Those priests are really something. Good for them. They sure seem connected to God. What a shame, though, that that could never be me. I can’t be the Kohen Gadol. But the existence of the Nazirite laws seem to be telling us, that’s not true.
If you want to make certain commitments, if you want to elevate yourself spiritually, then you – a regular person of the nation of Israel – you too can become just like a Kohen Gadol, with that same elevated connection to God.
Beautiful message right? And if we stopped right here, we could all go back to our lives feeling a little warmer and fuzzier. But, I’m sorry to say, I’m about to throw a wrench into this lovely, meaningful thought.
Because, this whole idea, that anyone can become Kohen Gadol-esque – that God approves of the fact that I, Rivky, want to be just like the high priest – is it really true? Because I seem to recall another story in the Torah, another person who, although he wasn’t actually eligible by birth, sought to become a Kohen, just like the nazir seems to be doing. But this story doesn’t have a happy ending. God rejected him, and his desire for priesthood, and he and his followers were killed. Who is this mystery figure? I’m talking about Korach, who we’ll meet in just a few weeks.
Who Can Become a Nazir?Here’s a quick reminder of the story: Korach, a cousin of Moses and Aaron, approaches them in the desert with a large group of people, and tells them:
You’ve taken too much for yourselves
כי כל־העדה כלם קדשים ובתוכם יהוה
The entire people is a holy people, and God dwells amongst all of them
ומדוע תתנשאו על־קהל יהוה
So why do you [Moses and Aaron, why do you] elevate yourselves above the rest of God’s flock?
In other words, Korach is saying, that special connection to God that you, Moses, you get as leader, and you, Aaron, you get as Kohen Gadol, that shouldn’t be limited to you! It should accessible to everyone! We’re all holy, we all deserve that special connection to God.
And even if it’s not so clear from Korach’s words exactly what he’s looking for here, Moshe lays it all out in his response. He reminds Korach that he and many of his followers are already Leviim, Levites, who also have a special role in the service of God. He says,
המעט מכם כי־הבדיל אלהי ישראל אתכם מעדת ישראל
Is it too little for you, that God already separated you from the rest of the people?
You’re asking to be a Kohen as well?!
In other words, Moses is saying to Korach, you’re the one seeking too much, not me.
So it really sounds like Korach wants to be a Kohen – just like the nazir does!
Now, if you didn’t know how this story ended, and you’d just learned the Nazirite laws, who would you say is in the right? Wouldn’t it be...Korach? Sure, maybe he could have been a bit less aggressive about it, but it’s commendable to want to be like the Kohanim, to enjoy that special spiritual closeness with God – isn’t it? Isn’t that the whole point of the idea of a Nazir?
But, let’s take a step back for a second, and examine one of our assumptions here. We said that a Nazir wants to be like a Kohen – a Kohen Gadol, in fact – and that Korach and his followers also wanted to be Kohanim. But when the nazir, and when Korach, are thinking about being a kohen, are they really desiring the same thing? I’m not so sure.
What does it mean to be a Kohen, really? What’s the essence of it? I think, when you drill down, there are actually three critical facets of priesthood, and all of the laws and details that come with being a Kohen really fall into one of them.
What Is the Spiritual Meaning of Becoming a Nazarite?One element is the Kohen’s special, particularly close relationship with God. Kohanim spend their time serving in God’s house, God’s divine home on Earth. And that comes with all of the restrictions, the extra levels of holiness and purity they need to maintain in order to be there – things like the restriction on coming close to dead bodies, or drinking wine.
Another element is the responsibility. When Kohanim serve in the Tabernacle, they take care of everyone’s personal offerings, all the national offerings, and the atonement and purification rituals. There’s so much resting on their shoulders. They’re the people’s conduit to God and God’s conduit to His people.
And the last element, which leads pretty naturally from the previous one, is the special respect and prestige. People rely on you to handle their offerings. They encounter you at the Tabernacle, while you’re dressed in distinctive, beautiful clothes. People bring you their tithes and their firstborn livestock. Even today, priests are given a level of respect – they’re called first to the Torah in synagogue, and they are the first to be asked to lead the prayer after meals. There’s a special way in which the nation looks at the priests, and respects and defers to them.
So, of these three elements, which ones line up with the things a Nazir does? Does he or she bear any great responsibilities, or serve as a go-between for God and the nation? No. And is he or she given any special treatment from other people because of his or her status? Not that one either. Really the only way a Nazir embodies priesthood is through the first element – the closeness with God, and the restrictions that go along with it.
And what about Korach? Which of the three elements of priesthood were he and his followers asking for? Does he say, hey, Moshe, I look at you, and I look at Aaron, and I yearn for that relationship, that closeness with God? No, Korach and his followers have a different complaint Let’s go back to his words:
רב־לכם, he says – you, Moses and Aaron, you’ve taken too much...
מדוע תתנשאו על־קהל יהוה
Why are you making yourselves all high and mighty, when everyone else is holy too?
Korach and his followers, they don’t want someone above them. They don’t want to be regular, or even half-special, when the Kohanim are enjoying their lofty station. They want the respect, the prestige, the power, the notoriety, for people to notice them and to give them honor the way they do for the priests. They don’t care about the closeness to God! It’s all about the other two elements of priesthood – the responsibility and the respect.
And perhaps that’s exactly the reason God rejects Korach.
If you want to be like one of the Kohanim, it has to be for the right reason. The Torah gives you a way to come closer to God, if that’s what you want to do. That’s what it means to be a Nazir. But if you want to be a kohen because you want respect or prestige, that’s the opposite of what God is looking for.
A Modern Day Nazarite VowFor me, this point is a powerful reminder of how important is it to be aware of my motivations. Why do I want that promotion at work? Is it because I think I can do a really good job, I can improve the department and help the people I work with? Or because I want the corner office with the big windows, and the respect that comes with? Why do I want to share Torah at a Shabbat meal? Because I want to learn Torah with my friends and family? Or because I want people to admire me, to think, wow, she’s so inspiring?
If I’m being honest, it’s never one thing or the other with these kinds of decisions. There’s always a mix of motivations, some a little more noble, some I might be a little more embarrassed about. And that’s okay. Ambition isn’t evil all on its own, and neither is wanting recognition, or respect. I just need to be honest with myself. And when it is a mix, and my primary motivation is honestly less than amazing, what will I do?
I want to push myself to make sure my primary motivation is never external, never about impressing other people, or based on the way people think about me. It should be about doing the right thing. Each time I can get that right, that’s another step closer to living a real holy life.