Saintly, or sanctimonious?
This is the question raised by commentators about the nazir, a type of religious ascetic described in Parshat Naso. While it may seem obvious that a monk or member of a secluded religious order is de facto on a higher religious plane than the rest of us, some of the Rabbis challenged this notion in their commentary on the nazir.
According to Chapter 6 of Bamidbar, an individual desiring to be “consecrated” could voluntarily take a nazirite’s vow that required them, for a certain amount of time, to abstain from wine and other grapevine derivatives; refrain from cutting their hair; and avoid ritual impurity. Such a person is described as “holy,” presumably in that they have taken on additional strictures in order to strengthen their connection to God.
It seems incongruous, therefore, that the Torah goes to on to prescribe a sin offering (korban chatat) that every nazir must bring at the end of their vow’s timeframe. This is startling, as a chatat sacrifice is ordinarily brought as a punishment, the consequence for some transgression. What exactly did the saintly nazir do wrong to warrant this punishment?
The plain explanation of the text, espoused by Ramban, is that the nazir’s return to normal life necessitates bringing a sin offering because he is now taking a religious step down. Simply by reaching the end of his vow and reentering mainstream society, the nazir is “sinning.” This is the perspective that views the nazir in a positive, “saintly” light.
However, an opposing view is found in the Talmud and championed by Maimonides. He asserts that the sin offering was not a consequence for reentering normal life, but on the contrary, for the having left normal life behind in the first place! In this perspective, the very act of becoming a nazir is problematic. Yes, the Torah allows it as an option for those who need additional strictures for their spiritual fulfillment, but becoming a nazirite is emphatically not meant as an ideal. Indeed, perhaps there is something “sinful” about taking on constraints beyond what is required, for the purpose of elevating oneself. Too often, those who seek consecrated status take on a holier-than-thou mentality which belies the true purpose of their position.
Maimonides’ perspective is borne out in the haftarah for Naso (Judges 13) in which we read the story of Samson, perhaps the most famous nazirite. Samson was renowned as a hero in his time, and even today remains famous for his military conquests. Yet, the Tanakh paints a critical picture of the long-haired leader, describing an impetuous and callous individual who exhibited disrespect toward his parents and wives, not to mention disregard for the nazirite regulations. We are well acquainted with “leaders” like Samson, whose story reminds us of those who seek high office and adopt a sacrosanct status not out of regard for others or the call of public service, but rather for their own ambitions and self-aggrandizement.
A countervailing model to this “sanctimonious” leadership appears in the parsha immediately after the laws of the nazir, where we read the priestly blessing (birkat kohanim). The famous benediction (“May the Lord bless you and protect you…and grant you peace”), recited by the kohanim for the entire nation, was delivered with hands raised, and the palms facing outwards. Commenting on this physical stance, the chasidic commentator Kedushat Levi writes that this indicated the priest’s intention was “lehashpia,” to influence and benefit others. When we pray for ourselves, we may adopt a petitionary position with palms facing upwards in order to receive. But the concern of the kohanim was primarily for others, and so they faced out their palms in the manner of a giver toward the nation. This idea underscores the leadership quality of the kohanim, namely that their focus was on giving, not on receiving; on service rather than on status.
Parashat Naso thus presents two opposing paradigms of leadership—the narcissistic nazir, and the priests of public service. When it comes to electing our own leaders, the parasha reminds us to carefully examine the motives of those seeking office. Someone in the nazirite model may appear to be a person of special status, but ultimately be someone more concerned with themselves; it is only one who operates in the kohen paradigm whose leadership will be marked by selfless service to others.
We may not be running for office, or facing an imminent election, but we can apply these paradigms to our own interactions and discourse. When we make comments on social media or engage in argument, do we do so in order to elevate ourselves and win an argument, or to serve a greater purpose and solve a problem? By eschewing the sanctimony of the nazirite model and embracing that of the kohen, we help ensure that each person with whom we interact is “blessed, protected and granted peace.”