Oaths these days are few and far between. Unless you are becoming a naturalized citizen, joining the Boy Scouts, testifying in court, or assuming public office, there’s hardly an occasion to raise your right hand and “solemnly swear” anything. Looked at from the other side, can we imagine anybody but an ISIS terrorist giving up a normal life by means of a determined and unbreakable promise?
Our Torah portion, Naso, speaks of the nazir(ite), who vows to abstain from wine and all grape products, not to cut his hair, and to avoid being in the presence of dead bodies for a certain amount of time (minimally a month). Rashi says the passage about the nazir immediately follows that about the sotah (a suspected adulteress who is tested publicly in a magical ordeal) in the Torah’s text because seeing such a woman in her downfall can cause people to swear off intoxicants so they will not end up that way. That’s the essence, Rashi thinks, of naziritude.
Other commentators have understood the “no haircutting” rule as being the essential aspect of being a nazir. Too concerned with what you look like, or how people think about your looks? Swear a binding oath not to do anything with your hair for a month or more! In Tractate Nazir in the Talmud, Shimon Ha-Tzadik (who was a rabbi but also had been the high priest) said he had only presided over one sacrifice from a nazir. During that ritual, he shaved and burned all the hair that had grown during the time he was a nazir. That man was the only one who, Shimon claimed, actually embraced the notion of rejecting “lookism” when he caught himself admiring his hair in a reflection, and thus could bring such a sacrifice with pure motivation, thinking about God and righteousness, as was necessary.
In the haftarah, however, we read about the birth of Samson, whom the Bible terms a “nazir from the womb.” He and the prophet Samuel are in a unique category of nazirites who did not choose the restrictions, but were born into it because of an event in their parents’ lives. Rabbi Meir Simcha Cohen of Dvinsk discusses this strange life in his commentary, noting that the Torah uses two different forms of the word “nezer,” one of which is possessive, as if owned by the practitioner, the other of which seems thrust upon him. Is it ever truly possible for a parent to take a solemn oath about what his offspring will or will not do, ever, in his entire life? Look at the Manchester bomber’s father (ISIS again), who denies any wrongful tendencies in his son, even though he had previously threatened to take away his son’s passport due to the young man’s extremism.
Indeed, in the discussion on this subject in Emmanuel Levinas’ “Nine Talmudic Readings,” the author explores the notion that someone who has chosen for himself is not necessarily the highest expression of an ideal. We all know that just because something is fresh and original doesn’t necessarily make it worthwhile. Indeed, one of the secrets of Jewish survival and excellence is how we manage to own — for ourselves — traditions that have been bequeathed to us by our ancestors.
Even as traditions continue to link us to what has come before, the greatest expression of holiness is not necessarily to be found in extremism, in renunciation of worldly pleasures (as the nazir does), but in enjoying blessings that we have received and ultimately in raising the physical to a higher level. Rabbi Shalom Noach Barzovsky, the Slonimer rebbe, noted that the passage on the nazir is followed by the tripartite priestly blessing, which in turn is followed by a list of the gifts each tribal leader brings at the dedication of the altar. Perhaps it is not a bad thing that we don’t renounce the world with extreme oaths like the nazir. Maybe the most important path we need to take is that which has been handed down us: rather than rejecting the imperfect world, we need to join in the long line those pitching in and doing the hard work of perfecting it, even if only incrementally.