Parashat Nasso
May 22, 2021, 11 Sivvan 5781
Torah: Numbers 4:21-7:89; Triennial 5:11-6:27
Haftarah: Judges 13:2-25
In this week's Torah Sparks, you'll find a D'var Torah on the Parashah by Ilana Kurshan called "Grooming, Grieving, Grapes". Vered Hollander-Goldfarb poses questions titled "Delivering Yourself." And Bex Stern Rosenblatt writes about "The Familiarity of Horror" in the Haftarah.
Grooming, Grieving, Grapes
Ilana Kurshan

Parashat Nasso introduces us to the nazir, a person who vows to take upon him or herself additional commitments so as to draw closer to God. A nazir vows not to drink wine or eat grapes, not to shave or get a haircut, and not to come into contact with the dead. An entire tractate of the Talmud is about the laws governing the nazir, which is surprising – why devote all this attention to a person engaged in self-denial within a tradition that is anything but ascetic? What are the rabbis trying to teach us about the nature of holiness, commitment, and our enjoyment of worldly pleasures?

In discussing the laws of the nazir, our parashah teaches that a nazir may not defile him/herself by a dead person, “even if his father or mother, or his brother or sister, should die” (6:7). That is, the vow taken by the nazir is so strict that even if one of the nazir’s closest relatives were to die, he or she is not permitted to come near the body or attend the burial. To do so would violate the terms of the vow, and the nazir would have to bring a sin offering and a burnt offering to the Temple and start out as a nazir all over again. This stringency is surprising because even the priests—who were not ordinarily permitted to come into contact with the dead—were permitted to defile themselves for the sake of their close relatives. The priests serve in the Temple and are devoted to holy matters year-round, whereas a nazir is just someone who decides to undergo a period of more intense religiosity. Why then are the laws governing the nazir even stricter than those governing the priests?
The Talmud considers the relationship between the nazir and the priesthood in the opening mishnah of the seventh chapter of the eponymous tractate (Nazir 47a), which is about the prohibition on coming into contact with the dead. They explain that while the nazir may not defile him or herself by contact with the dead even in the case of the death of a close relative, there is one case in which a nazir may attend to a dead body. This is the case of a met mitzvah, an individual who has passed away leaving no one to take care of his or her burial. That is, if a nazir stumbles upon the dead body of an unknown individual, that nazir is obligated to violate the terms of his or her vow so as to perform the burial. The rabbis rule that if a priest and a nazir both come upon a met mitzvah, it is in fact the nazir—and not the priest—who should care for the corpse. And yet this, too, is puzzling. Why may the nazir defile him or herself for the sake of an anonymous individual but not for his or her own family member? And why is the opposite true of the priest, who may defile himself for his own family member but not for the met mitzvah?
We can begin to answer these questions by considering the specific requirements of the nazir’s vow. For the duration of that vow, the nazir may not get a haircut or shave. The Torah states that the nazir has “the crown of God on his head” (6:7), presumably because his or her hair is grown long and consecrated to God. The midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 10:11) explains that most people are uncomfortable with long and unruly hair, but the nazir tolerates it as a sign of commitment to God. As such, a head of long, ungroomed hair becomes a sign of the nazir’s willingness to neglect his or her own physical appearance for the sake of a spiritual commitment. Similarly, the nazir’s vow to abstain from wine and grape products reflects a readiness to suppress his or her own appetites and desires for the sake of a higher end. And finally, the nazir does not even attend the funeral of close relatives, a sign that he or she has withdrawn from the world of human emotions. While the rest of the family is mourning at the graveside, the nazir remains off at a distance, fixated on his or her own holiness and relationship with God.
In neglecting his or her physical appearance, suppressing his or her appetites, and shutting down his or her emotions, the nazir becomes a sort of religious automaton, single-mindedly focused on the spiritual and unwilling to allow any intrusions by the messiness of the mundane. Grooming? Grape juice? Grieving? The nazir has no use for any of it. In this sense, the nazir is the opposite of the priest, who is very much preoccupied with human emotion and the messiness of real life. The priests spend their days among people – they tend to lepers, listen to confessions, and help individuals atone for sin. Their work is never anonymous, which is why they are unsuited to bury the met mitzvah. This is the perfect job for the nazir – it is a religious obligation that should be devoid of any emotional involvement because the identity of the met mitzvah is by definition unknown. Like a robot programmed for the task, the nazir is better able to go through the motions of purifying the body and ensuring that the burial proceeds in accordance with halakhah.
In comparing the nazir and the priests, the rabbis of the Mishnah (Nazir 7:1) note that whereas the priest is sanctified to God forever, the nazir assumes this status for a limited time only. If a person vows to be a nazir, then we assume by default that the commitment lasts thirty days, at which point the nazir is obligated to get a haircut and bring sacrifices to the Temple. One of those sacrifices is a sin offering, and in the Talmud (Nazir 19a), Rabbi Elazar HaKappar explains that the nazir sinned by abstaining from wine, since God wants people to enjoy the delights of this world. Perhaps the rabbis recognized that people cannot sustain that kind of single-minded spirituality forever, nor would we want them too. We are expected to experience the pleasure and pain of life, and not to neglect our bodies, suppress our appetites, or repress our emotions.
Self-denial remains, to this day, a tempting prospect for many. Some are drawn to monastic retreats; others are lured by juice fasts and restrictive diets. The nazir serves as a reminder not to take our asceticism too far. We are not meant to live above the world, but in it. At some point we have to come back from the monastery and sit down to break bread or raise a glass of wine with our closest family members, rejoining the very messy world of which we are fortunate to be a part.
Delivering Yourself
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

The nazir is a person who voluntarily takes an oath, usually for a predetermined period, that include three prohibitions: to consume anything that is made of grapes, to cut one’s hair in any form, and to become impure because of a dead person, including one’s own family. Now we will look at what happens at the termination of the naziritehood period.
Text: Bamidbar 6:13
And this is the law of the nazir: when the days of his naziritehood are fulfilled he shall bring it/him to the door opening of the Tent of Meeting.
  • Who do you think the nazir brings to the Tent of Meeting when he is done fulfilling his time as a nazir? (The answer is not in the text.)
  • Under what circumstances is a person brought (rather than come) to a place?
  • How do you think that the nazir feels at the end of his naziritehood?

Commentary: Rashi Bamidbar 6:13

Bring it/him - means “he shall bring himself”. This [use of the Hebrew word “et”] is one of the three cases of “et” with a pronominal suffix which R. Yishmael explained thus (as being reflexive and not accusative pronouns).
  • Going beyond the grammatical explanation, why do you think that Rabbi Yishmael understood the situation to be one where the nazir is bringing himself when he has completed his naziritehood?
Commentary: Seforno Bamidbar 6:13

Bring it/him - our sages have already explained this to mean that the nazir is to bring himself, as it were. This is because when someone is being prepared for a new status, such a person is being “brought” to his new assignment by someone superior to himself. As it says, ‘a jailed person does not free himself’. Therefore, it is written for a person being purified from tzaraat “and he shall be brought to the Kohen.” (Leviticus 14,2) … However, the nazir (at the end of his naziritehood) who will once more begin to shave his hair, thus becoming a new man (attaining a new status), there is no one superior to him who could act as the one “bringing” him, therefore he shall bring himself.
  • What emotional role does a [superior] outsider provide for the person moving to a new status when accompanying this person in the process?
  • Where in our lives do we have people “bringing” us to a new status or situation? When do we find ourselves having to deliver ourselves to a new position? What is the advantage of each situation?
The Familiarity of Horror
Bex Stern Rosenblatt

The Book of Judges contains some of the best and some of the weirdest stories in the Tanakh. It’s a book containing female heroes, child sacrifice, mass murder, riddles, and a poop joke. We are in the time period after the Israelites have entered the land of Israel. Joshua has just died and Israel is leader-less. We read the stories of various leaders, various so-called judges, who are raised up by God to lead Israel in times of trouble. Most of these stories are reminiscent of other biblical stories of great leaders. However, in the Book of Judges, it is as if those stories are retold through the looking glass. Many of the recognizable elements from the great stories are there, but there is always something slightly off. The story feels familiar but totally wrong at the same time. We feel as if we’re in a horror movie, seduced into a false sense of comfort before we notice that everything is in fact terribly, horribly dangerous.
Our haftarah is one such story. We read of an angel announcing to a barren woman and her loving husband that the woman will conceive and bear a child. We know this story. We’ve read a number of variations of it in Genesis. It’s usually a story with a very happy ending, with a child, an heir being born to a happy couple. So what’s wrong with the story in Judges 13, the announcement of the birth of Samson? Why do we get that feeling of horror?
In the story of Samson’s birth, we read two reports of the angel announcing the birth of Samson. The first time, we hear the angel himself announce it to the mother-to-be. He says to her:
“Behold, please, you are barren and have not given birth. And you will conceive and give birth to a son. And now, please be careful and do not drink wine or alcohol. And do not eat anything impure. For behold, you are pregnant and you shall give birth to a son and no razor shall go up upon his head, for the lad from your belly shall be a Nazirite of God. And he will begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”
It’s quite the announcement. It’s not just the announcement of a child, it’s the announcement of general best practice of how to behave when pregnant, of the restating of the rules of what it means to be a Nazirite, and of the delivery of Israel from the Philistines. But when the mother-to-be restates the angel’s words to her husband, who had not been there to hear the angel’s original pronouncement, she modifies it. She says the angel said:
“Behold you are pregnant and you shall give birth to a son. And now, do not drink wine or alcohol and do not eat anything impure for the lad from your belly shall be a Nazirite of God until the day of his death”
The woman takes the announcement of the angel and reinterprets, changing a number of things. Most strikingly, she mentions the death of her son, saying that he will be a Nazirite until the day of his death. The angel had not said anything about Samson’s death. It is as if she has placed a loaded gun into the first scene of a movie. We know it’s going to go off. Unwittingly, she has taken the familiar, a birth announcement, and turned it into a death announcement. Indeed, this is how Samson’s story ends. After his hair is cut, breaking his Nazarite vows, he will die in one final act of courage. The great hero will be brought down by his own strength. And the mother foretells the death of her child.
Reading these stories is uncomfortable. We are pulled into them by the sense that they are familiar, by the reassurance that the plot will proceed as it always has, towards a happy ending. The Book of Judges reminds us that happy endings are not guaranteed. Our words and our actions determine our fate. We cannot rely on the merit of those who came before us to get us through what lies ahead of us. When it feels as if the familiar has become uncanny, it’s up to us to write our way out of a horror story.
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