Rabbi Emanuel Cohn
Former Avrech in Montreal (2001-2003)
Founder of “Torah MiCinema” – Teaching Film and Judaism
In our Parasha we learn about the Nazir (Nazirite). We are used to the thought that a Nazir is a Jew who takes upon himself to refrain from the pleasures in this world. But if we examine carefully what his restrictions REALLY are, our eyebrows might rise. The only three things a Nazir is not allowed to do are shaving his hair, drinking wine and becoming impure by a human corpse. That´s all? Is THIS the famous, “glorified” Nazir we grew up with? The one who courageously adopts a state of holiness? Is it really so hard to refrain from these three restrictions? It seems the easiest thing in the world! And yet, a person who kept his Nazirite vow even for thirty days, is recognized and “celebrated” as an official Nazir.
There must be a deeper understanding of the phenomena of “Nazir”, an understanding which lies in the simple meaning of the word “Nazir” in modern Hebrew means a “monk”, “lehitnatzer” means “to abstain from, to go into solitude”. If we follow this line of interpretation, then a Nazir is first of all – and certainly before the above mentioned restrictions – a person who separates himself from society. This idea expresses itself in his three seemingly harmless restrictions: Drinking wine (i.e. parties, “lechayim”), cutting hair (i.e. awareness of fashion, social pressure) and Tum´at Met (i.e. going to a Levaya, Shiva-visits) – they all reflect actions which could be asssociated with social interaction. But these prohibitions are not the ROOT of the Nazir´s existence, rather they are an EXPRESSION of it. The true foundation of the Nazir is, however, his living detached from society, devoting his existence alone and in solitude to G-d.
Now we can also understand why the Torah has an ambivalent approach to the phenomena of a Nazir: On one hand it says about the Nazir that “the crown of his G-d is upon his head” (Bamidbar 6, 7), on the other hand the Torah refers to him (three verses later) as a sinner. Indeed, there is a value in separating oneself from the environment and building oneself spiritually. Rav Nachman of Breslav saw great importance in a person being in solitude with his Creator and pouring out his heart to Him. However, it is obvious that the Torah primarily views man´s role WITHIN his community and not separated from it.
As we did with the term “Nazir”, the exegetical method of understanding a concept first and foremost through its original, simple term could also be adapted to other subjects, such as Shabbat: It is true that there are 39 Melachot (technical works) which are prohibited on Shabbat. But what IS Shabbat? As the word “Shabbat” implies, the most essential content of Shabbat is the act of “shvita”, resting. According to that interpretation, to carry large boxes within an Eruv (which halachically-technically speaking would be permitted) is in its essence an equally strong violation of the Holiness of Shabbat as desecrating it by one of the 39 Melachot.
Another example would be Yom Tov. Before we talk about all the different symbols of the specific festival, we must be aware of the most basic, simple, and most important idea of a Chag: It is a “Yom tov”, a “Good Day”! In this light we will see actions such as talking about sad matters on the Chag in a very different and much more severe way. A Yom Tov must be in its essence a good day. A day on which we are feeling good, eating well, talking of good and doing good.
Let us return together to the simple meaning of our Torah and recapture its true and authentic essence.