Parshat Naso

By Rabbi Joshua Hoffman, AJRCA President

Righteous Restraint

Among the disparate themes of this week’s Torah portion, Naso, we are introduced to the laws of the Nazirite and the ultimate blessing of the priests over the people.  The nazir is a person who self-consecrates themselves to God by abstaining from intoxicating substances and cutting their hair. It is a peculiar practice all but extinct in our modern expressions of religious life.  Nevertheless, the rabbis of our tradition were determined to glean the wisdom from this manner of dedication throughout the generations. In fact, they chose to coincide this portion with the retelling of the birth story of Samson in the Haftarah especially because he was a lifelong nazir. Perhaps, the rabbis use his tale to elucidate the perils of unbounded zeal too.

We’re familiar with Samson’s heroic strength derived from his luscious hair locks, his bravery in battles against the Philistines, and the tragedy he endures from the manipulations of his wife, Delilah. Just walk into the great museums of the world today and you will find painting after painting depicting his life story on the canvases of history. Delve a little deeper into his complicated story and we also discover a lifetime of arrogance, aggression and deception. Samson’s dedication as a nazir appears laudable, while his impulsivity and brute force bring more harm than help. Here, we learn that the practice of abstention without intention can bring spiritual catastrophe. It’s also important to note that Samson is the last of the Judges from the biblical period.

Making vows, even dedicating ourselves to some greater purpose, is fundamentally human. The Torah text, Samson’s story, and the rabbis’ juxtaposition of the two here suggests that the compulsion to self-sacrifice without Torah is not the model of just behavior we should aspire to achieve.  The rabbis famously point out that Samson’s eyes were lustful, so the Philistines gouged out his eyes in an act of poetic justice. (B Sotah 9b)

There are, by contrast, many models of holy leadership we hope to emulate in our generation.  We should not only look to the strongest and most clever among us to guide and protect us. We are not easily persuaded by the overt piety of individuals either. Ben Zoma reminds us in Pirke Avot, “Who is mighty? The one who conquers their impulses.” (M Avot 4:1) Here is where Torah and self-dedication meet and a model of righteous might is forged.

The model of leadership we continue to seek out and elevate is reflected in individuals who can exert power and might, but don’t without just cause to do so.  And when justice is perverted by forces motivated by fear, the righteous ones act with the might of our modern tools of equality and human dignity for all.  The nazir, if there is any possible analogue today, is the one who practices self-restraint to be worthy of blessing.

The Torah portion becomes explicit in this pursuit of justice and peace. The blessings the priests bestow upon the people immediately follow the laws of the nazir. “Yisa HaShem Panav Eilecha v’Yasem Lecha Shalom.” “May the face of YHVH lead you to paths of peace.” The paths of peace are hewn for all those who seek them. May this week guide us toward righteous restraint and illuminate paths of peace for us all.