In this Torah portion, Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89), we learn about the Nazirite and the Nazirites now. The root nzr means to "separate oneself." In this case, the person is separating himself/herself, keeping away from certain things, in order to consecrate himself/herself to God. The Nazir was forbidden to drink wine or ale or any product of the vine, to cut his/her hair, or to have any contact with a corpse. These restrictions are very severe, even more severe than those pertaining to the priest. The Nazir temporarily abstains from wine, etc., and restricts his/her activities in order to attain a consecrated status in the eyes of God and the community.
One can imagine why a person might choose to do this as repentance for past behavior, as an active prayer for a hope or wish for the future, or in gratitude for some divine beneficence hoped for or unexpected.
But if this person has set himself/herself aside from some of life's pleasures, why then the completion ritual (upon completion of the term of the vow), which includes a sin or purification offering? What has he/she done as a Nazirite that would require either a sin or purification offering? (Some translations suggest that this is a sin offering; others suggest that it is a purification offering.) If he/she had become impure during his/her term as a Nazir, the Naziriteship would have been aborted and would have had to be resumed from the start. Some commentators (Ramban, Abravanel, Jacob Milgrom in the JPS Torah Commentary) suggest that the Nazir's self-removal from a holy state to a profane state requires expiation through a purification ritual and sacrifice. His/her state of de-sanctification has already been realized, but, nonetheless, requires a sacrifice.
When I read this text, another thought comes to mind. The Nazir attempted to enter the realm of the sacred through abstinence and self-denial. Although these methods were legitimate in the ancient Jewish world, they were not to be regarded as normative. Sacrifice to God can best be accomplished by embracing the world, by performing mitzvot within the realm of the not yet sacred. To separate oneself is not the ideal way to serve God. That was the way of the designated and circumscribed priesthood, not the way of a people who strive to become a kingdom of priests within the world as it is and as it can be.
The Nazir chose a legitimate but not ideal way. Thus when he/she returned, he/she had to make a burnt offering (either a sin offering or a purification offering) because his/her action was contrary to the ideal way. By becoming a Nazir, he/she had chosen temporary separation from the people and not life with the people. In order for the Nazir to return, a lesson is taught: The Nazir has acted in a way that requires purification in order to return. In addition, the Nazir brings a third offering, a shelamim for joy, because the Nazir is returning to the people, to be at one and whole with them again, making this a joyous reunion.
Our task then is not to separate from our community and people and not to abstain from life's joys but rather to affirm life at its best, to join in the task of making holiness part of our lives as together we build holy communities.
Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman is a past president and rosh yeshiva of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.