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Separation and Abstention

  • Separation and Abstention

    Naso, Numbers 4:21−7:89
D'var Torah By: 

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.

Shlepping the Sacred
Davar Acher By: 
Debra J. Robbins

The Nazir reminds us that our task is, as Rabbi Zimmerman explains, "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...." Parashat Naso provides advice about how to live a life of holiness and mitzvot. The parashah includes descriptions of what was "schlepped" by the different priestly families and the equipment they used: "But to the Kohathites [Moses] did not give any [carts or oxen]; since theirs was the service of the [most] sacred objects, their porterage was by shoulder." (Numbers 7:9)

We live in an age in which we are used to having other people "carry" many of our responsibilities for us. We have others pick up our children at school, cook our meals, and answer our phones. We rely on experts, lawyers, doctors, and teachers for help. But doing mitzvot—living a religious life and pursuing holiness—is not something that can be done by someone else for us. When it comes to the holy, we have to be like the Kohathites, carrying the sacred on our own shoulders.

This often means that we have to put down something else in order to be able to carry what really matters. There is an old story about a Zen master and his student who were out for a walk when they came to a raging river and heard a woman screaming for help. (Now remember, Zen masters do not touch women, and the relationship between a Zen master and student is one in which the student cannot speak to the master until he is spoken to.) The master immediately waded into the water, grabbed the woman from the current, carried her to the other side, and deposited her on the shore. All this time the student stood in silence, amazed that his teacher would violate such a sacred principle. They continued to walk until the student could contain himself no longer. He burst out suddenly and asked, "How could you do that? How could you touch that woman?" The master turned to him and replied simply, "Are you still carrying her? I put her down a long time ago."

The Zen master could carry the drowning woman because he had put down his vow in order to lift the sanctity of life. We all must put some things or ideas down in order to carry something else more sacred, something more meaningful to our life and the life of our people and our family. To do this, one has to be strong of body and strong of spirit. Perhaps the rabbis of Pirkei Avot had this in mind when they asked, "Who is strong? One who controls his/her impulses." (Pirkei Avot 4:1) To embrace an active and dynamic Jewish life, we have to be determined. We have to be dedicated in our devotion to the principles that have long guided our people. We have to be committed to overcoming the outside influences that distract us from our real work. We have to be strong enough to carry what is meaningful and enriching—what is most holy—on our own shoulders.

Questions to Consider

  1. Do you know what happened when the Israelites didn't follow these instructions? (Read the story of Uzza and King David in I Chronicles, chapter 13.)
  2. What issues or problems are you still carrying that you need to put down in order to carry something more sacred?
  3. What one new mitzvah can you and/or your family add to your life/lives? What do you need to put down so that you can do this new sacred action? When will you start? Whom do you need to help you do this?

Suggested Reading: "One's Own Indispensable Shoulders" in The Voice Still Speaks by Morris Adler, Bloch Publishing, 1969.

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins is the associate rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX.

5/29/1999
Reference Materials: 

Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,043-1,075; Revised Edition, pp. 921-945;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 815-842