Former Shaliach in Chicago
I am indebted to my fellow yeshiva student David Sabato for the following idea.
The Torah does not explicitly address the role and character of the nazir (nazirite). The only information that our parshah provides us with about the nazir is the prohibitions to which he is subject. It would seem, then, that understanding the significance of these prohibitions is the key to understanding the spiritual world of the nazir.
There are three prohibitions which the Torah applies to a nazir. He must not drink wine and grape products; he must not become impure by a dead body; and he must not cut his hair.
The commentators have pointed out many similarities between the laws of a nazir and the laws of a kohen (priest). The prohibition on the kohen drinking wine appears for the first time in Vayikra 10:9 in reference to the Temple service: “Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, so that you will not die.” What is the reason for this prohibition? From the adjoining verses, our Rabbis derive that the point is to safeguard the sobriety of the priest while he is engaged in divine service and teaching the nation: “to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, the pure and the impure, and to teach the children of Israel all the laws which God has spoken to them through Moshe” (Ibid. 10:10-11). The prohibition of becoming impure even to attend a relative’s burial is found only in regard to the kohen gadol (high priest): “Nor shall he approach any dead body; he may not become impure for his father or his mother” (Ibid. 21:11).
We see from these comparisons that the nazir’s level of holiness is similar to that of the kohen gadol, for they are the only ones prohibited from becoming impure even for relatives. From the prohibition on drinking wine, we can conclude that the nazir’s role too is similar to that of the kohen gadol – to teach the word of God to the nation. Because of this, the nazir must make sure that he is sober and thus avoid wine. This prohibition then does not reflect a negative attitude towards the material world. The nazir is not a person who strives to separate himself from all worldly matters. On the contrary, his job is deeply rooted in the community. The nazir is a spiritual leader whose holiness and role both parallel that of the kohen gadol. A nazir who isolates and flagellates himself betrays his role, because he must take responsibility for what happens in this world, not flee from it. The words of the prophet Amos, who sees the nazir as the ideal spiritual leader, serve to support this understanding: “I also sent you prophets from among your children and nazirites from among your youths” (Amos 2:11).
However, in light of the remarkable similarity of the prohibitions of these two leaders, the difference between them stands out in sharp relief – the prohibition of haircutting does not apply to the kohen gadol. Instead, the opposite prohibition applies. Concerning the kohen gadol we read: “He shall not let the hair of his head go loose (et rosho lo yifra) or tear his clothes” (Vayikra 21:10), while about the nazir we read: “[He] shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow (gadel pera se’ar rosho)” (Bamidbar 6:5). It would seem that this point is what marks the fundamental difference between these spiritual leaders, as we shall see.
The kohen gadol also has a “nazir” component. One of the articles of clothing which the kohen gadol wears is the tzitz (ornamental headplate), which is referred to as nezer hakodesh (the holy crown). The kohen gadol wears it on his forehead. On the tzitz are engraved the words “holy to God” (Sh’mot 39:30). The idea here is not that the tzitz is holy to God, but that the kohen gadol who bears it is. We find a very similar expression regarding the nazir: “all the days that he is a nazirite, he is holy to God” (Bamidbar 6:8). The tzitz is a decorative item made from pure gold, the most precious and aristocratic of metals, and as such is a sign of the holiness of the kohen gadol. His holiness flows from his being of priestly lineage, from the spiritual aristocrats of the Jewish nation. He is a spiritual leader who is sanctified and chosen from birth. Therefore, he is forbidden to grow his hair. Growing his hair would detract from his official, respectable appearance.
In contrast, the crown of the nazir, which symbolizes his holiness and consecration to God, is not a valuable golden ornament but rather hair, the simplest and most natural thing possible. Hair grows from the body, and it is the nazir’s personal choice to let it grow long and to sanctify it. The nazir is a popular leader who arises from the midst of the nation and is a self-made man. As opposed to the kohen gadol, anybody Jewish can become a nazir, regardless of lineage or gender. Thus the section begins: “when a man or woman makes a vow” (Ibid. 6:2). Long hair does not detract from his external appearance, because he is not an official leader. Rather, for this type of leader, hair actually contributes to his imposing appearance. Thus Elijah is described as “a hairy man with a leather girdle bound about his loins” (Melakhim Bet 1:8).
To sum up:
Holiness and spiritual leadership are not limited to a spiritual elite with impressive lineage. The People of Israel are all God’s people, referred to as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:6).
We learn from this discussion that every Jewish person, even someone extremely distant from the world of Torah, can elevate himself to the heights of holiness. Everything depends upon the will.
As we engage in our shlichut work, each and every one of us, wherever he may be, must remember and internalize this message.