Rabbi Mordechai Fogelman
Former Rosh Kollel in Washington
In Parashat Naso we read all about the laws pertaining to the nazir (6:1-21). There are contradictory opinions among our Sages as to how to relate to the nazir. On the one hand, Rabbi Elazar HaKappar suggests that he is a sinner:
Why does the Torah say (6:11), “And make atonement for him, because he sinned against the soul”? Against which soul did he sin? It can only be because he denied himself wine (Nazir 19a).
On the other hand, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 10:11) suggests that he is holy, based on an earlier verse:
Throughout the term of his vow as nazir, no razor may touch his head. Until he completes his days as a nazir to God, he shall be holy; he must let the locks of the hair of his head grow long (6:5).
It brings the problem into sharp relief when we realize that the Rambam contradicts himself in his treatment of the issue. In HilkhotNedarim (13:23) he writes:
Someone who took a vow in order to solidify his character and to improve his actions is called diligent and praiseworthy. A case in point: Someone who was a glutton and swore off meat for a year or two, or someone with a drinking problem who swore off wine for an extended period . . . [These] and other such vows are all ways of serving God. It is regarding such vows that our Sages said, “Vows are a fence for abstinence” (Pirkei Avot 3:13). We see that this is a great virtue, and a path in the service of God.
On the other hand, in HilkhotDe’ot (3:1) the Rambam writes:
A person should not say, “Since jealousy, lust, desire for honor, and the like are an evil path and they drive a person out of the world (Pirkei Avot 4:21), I will separate myself from them as much as possible and distance myself from them to the extreme.” If he reaches the point where he stops eating meat and drinking wine, does not marry, and does not live in a nice home or wear nice clothing, but rather wears sackcloth and coarse wool and the like (as do the idol-worshipping priests), this path is evil as well and it is forbidden to follow it. One who follows this path is called a sinner, as it says, “Make atonement for him, because he sinned.” We see that what the nazir does is a sin.
We can resolve the contradiction based on an essay by the Slonimer Rebbe (Netivot Shalom), in which he discusses the connection between three consecutive topics in Parashat Naso: the nazir, the mitzvah of BirkatKohanim (the priestly blessing), and the offerings that the nesi’im (chieftains) brought when the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was consecrated.
The Rebbe suggests that the order of these topics points toward ascending levels in the service of God.
The nazir distances himself from worldly pleasures. If a person enslaves himself for an extended time to sensory pleasures, then when he wishes to improve his service of God he needs to refrain from those pleasures.
The next level is found in BirkatKohanim. The Sifrei explains the first verse as follows: “May God bless you” – financially; “May God guard you” – from demons. The meaning of this blessing then is that a person should be able to busy himself with worldly matters without disrupting his service of God.
The third level, the offering of six covered wagons and twelve oxen by the nesi’im, hints at the highest level of the service of God. For wagons and oxen are material goods which not only do not disturb the service of God, but can actually be used themselves to serve God.
The Slonimer Rebbe explains that man’s purpose in the world is to use material goods and to elevate them to God. For example, by reciting a blessing, a person can elevate the food of a rich meal and make it part of his service of God. However, there are stages in the service of God when it is too difficult for a person to serve God by successfully engaging with and elevating worldly pleasures. In such a case, he must separate himself from those pleasures.
Based on this idea of the Slonimer Rebbe, we can resolve the contradiction in the words of the Sages and the Rambam about the Torah’s attitude to the nazir.
Sometimes a person is in a state in which he is unable to serve God while simultaneously drinking wine and the like. In that case, he is called holy when he refrains from drinking. In contrast, sometimes a person can serve God by bringing the material world into His service, but prefers to minimize the struggle and take the easy way out. In this case, when he simply cuts himself off from worldly matters, he is a sinner “because he denied himself wine.”
We can bring a further support for the Slonimer Rebbe’s words if we look at the verse which speaks of the concluding days of the nezirut period. “Ve’achar yishteh hanazir yayin” (6:20) could be translated either as “After that the nazir may drink wine,” or “After that the nazir must drink wine.” It seems that the second translation is better. Not only does the Torah allow the nazir to drink, but it commands him to do so. During the nezirut process, he served God with wine, by refraining from drinking it. Now, following the completion of that process, he is called upon to serve God with wine, by actually drinking it.