Jews are not ascetics — or at least, so we tend to think. If you are interested in pursuing this, check out the Hasidei Ashkenaz of medieval German Jewry, who, among other pietistic practices, would flog themselves, roll in the snow in winter, and cover themselves with honey to be stung by bees in summer. But Parashat Naso describes what seems to have been a much more familiar ascetic practice, in biblical times and beyond: becoming a Nazir.
Nazirs, or Nazirites, (nazirim) are introduced in this parashah as men or women who vow to follow three basic prohibitions: not drinking wine or alcohol, or eating anything derived from grapes; not cutting their hair; and avoiding contact with the dead (which, in biblical terms, would cause an impure state) (Numbers 6:1-21). Although elsewhere in the Tanakh we find lifelong Nazirites, like Samson and Samuel, and in the Christian Bible, John the Baptist, here we find a case where someone takes on a temporary vow, followed by a sacrificial ritual when the designated time is complete.
The passage about the Nazirite follows a description of the sotah, the wife who is suspected of adultery and subject to a trial by ordeal (Numbers 5:11-31). Both these passages, and other laws in Naso, reflect a focus on priestly rules and the purity of the Israelite camp. In other ways, though, they are portrayed as opposites; Rabbinic literature links them by suggesting that when one sees the uncontrolled behavior of an adulteress, one is warned against the dangers of wine.
The condemnation of adultery is unequivocal in the Torah and later Jewish writing, as complex as the case of the sotah may be. But there is much more ambivalence surrounding the Nazir. Is it always bad to abstain from wine, a source of joy? Or are there times when such a decision is not only justified, but also worthy of praise, given alcohol’s potential to cause harm?
This touches on another myth: Jews are not alcoholics. Wine is served at Kiddush and four cups are served at the seder; on Purim, drinking is said to be obligatory; and countless programs for young adults, whether “Torah and Tonics” or “Latkes and Vodka,” use alcohol as part of their appeal — as if it is never a problem.
But the commentaries on Naso reveal a deeper truth. “In every instance where wine is mentioned in the Torah,” we read, “it always leaves a mark” (B’midbar Rabbah 10:4). The Midrash zooms in on the stories of Noah and Lot, and even Adam and Eve (with the suggestion that the fatal fruit Eve gave Adam, was actually a grape), describing different levels of drunkenness and the dangers they carry. Perhaps even more significantly, there is a recognition that alcohol affects different people in different ways. “Wine itself is neither positive nor negative,” Rabbi Alexander Kohut (Hungarian, 19th century) writes; and the modern commentator, Nehama Leibowitz, sees the Nazirite’s vow as “a necessary but extreme medicine for spiritual ills” (Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, Ahva Press, 1980, p. 57). With great insight, Gersonides (French, 14th century) notes, “Just as the previous chapter [on the suspected wife] was intended to quell contention between people, the Nazirite vow is intended to silence the unhealthy turmoil inside a person, arising from the physical desire that might lead one to sin.”
So how might Nazirite practice be explained, in light of our knowledge about addiction? We know that for recovering alcoholics, a sip of alcohol has a different effect than it would on anyone else. The Rabbinic concept of “building a fence around the law” thus could have a very tangible meaning: that we avoid not only alcohol, but also ingredients used to make it, as a way of separating oneself from temptation. Likewise, avoiding contamination by the dead could be understood as distancing oneself from associations in one’s previous life as an addict — a path that can lead to a return to addiction, and ultimately, to death. And not cutting one’s hair? Perhaps that could be seen as a commitment to humility, to valuing the integrity of internal choices over external appearances. Also, as some commentators suggest, the fact that Nazirites can be recognized as such allows others to help them on their paths by reminding them of their commitment.
I never would have come to this perspective, were it not for a congregant who learned this passage at Torah study one Shabbat morning, then approached me to ask about the Nazirite vow as a component of her own recovery. After more study and discussion, she decided to go forward with a private vow in front of the ark. When asked to describe her choice, here is what she said:
I am choosing to become a Nazirite for several personal reasons. First of all … being an alcoholic, this commitment I have already made to stay sober will also help keep me connected to God, and allow me to include my spiritual beliefs and being a Jew as part of my commitment to sobriety. Also, making commitments for a year not to cut my hair and not to consume any grapes or grape products, will remind me that I am a Jew and how important my beliefs in God are on a daily basis…. This is not for status or to be better than anyone. This is to help me to become a better me.1
As ancient and obscure as it may seem, I have come to believe that the Nazirite vow gives a Jewish tool to those who struggle with addiction. Rather than a commitment to asceticism for its own sake, it can be part of an attempt to make good choices by drawing firm lines and connecting to that “Higher Power” we call God.
Here is what I find most beautiful. The laws surrounding the Nazirite are followed in our parashah by the priestly benediction, Birkat Kohanim (Numbers 5:22-27). This blessing is transmitted by the priests but ultimately comes from God. “A mortal does not know with what to bless another,” notes the Ketav Sofer (Hungarian, 19th century), “for what he thinks may be good for another person may in reality be bad for him, and vice versa. Rather, may God, who knows what is good for you, bless you.” Parashat Naso recognizes that as human beings — in all our individuality — we make mistakes, and we are flawed; it is not despite this, but because of it, that we are worthy of blessing.
1. Personal correspondence, shared by permission.
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, D. Phil., is senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal, Canada. Rabbi Grushcow is the author of Writing the Wayward Wife: Rabbinic Interpretations of Sotah, the editor of The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, a contributor to The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and a regular columnist with the Canadian Jewish News. She serves as co-president of the Montreal Board of Rabbis.