Parshat Naso: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is a cult movie which turned Clint Eastwood into a Hollywood star, but it could have been a good title for this week’s parsha. In Parshat Naso we meet a rich cast of colorful characters – the leper, the thief, the adulteress, the nazirite and the priests. Despite their seeming differences, there is a common denominator which unites all these figures and explains their appearance together in the parsha. While last week’s parsha dealt with the layout of the camp – the mishkan in the middle and nation arranged around it – Parshat Naso addresses the life within the camp. The Parsha’s diverse characters are united in that their treatment all stems from an inherent understanding that G-d is present in the camp. The mishkan isn’t an ivory tower, isolated from reality, it is the center of daily life and it radiates on everything around it.

The Nazirite’s Hair

By far the most interesting figure in the parsha is the nazirite. Naziritism is an opportunity for equality. It is open to anyone in Am Yisrael – Kohen, Levi, Israelite, man or woman – who decides to distance oneself from a normative lifestyle and dedicate one’s life to holiness and drawing closer to G-d. The basic requirements to be a nazirite are abstaining from wine, letting one’s hair grow unkempt and uncut, and distancing oneself from contact with the dead.

To better understand the nazirite, let us compare him to the priest. Both the priest and the nazirite hold a special level of holiness which obligates them to distance themselves from death. The difference between them is specifically in the quality which most distinguishes the nazirite – his hair. Where the priest is prohibited from letting his hair grow long and unruly (Vayikra 21:10), the nazirite is explicitly commanded to do so. Indeed, it is long hair which defines him as a nazirite, as it says:

All the days of his Nazarite vow no razor shall approach his head… he will be holy, the hair on his head will grow long…for the death of his father and mother, his brother and sister he shall not become impure for the crown of his G-d is on his head. All the days of his Nazaritism he is holy to G-d. And if someone should suddenly die next to him, [making him impure and] defiling his crowned head, then he must shave his head on the seventh day, the day of his purification. (Bamidbar 6:4-7)

The sanctity of the nazirite is expressed by his hair, which is called holy to G-d. The Hebrew word for nazirite, “nazir” shares a root with the word “nezer,” which means crown, as in the above verse where the nazirite’s long hair is called G-d’s crown on his head. The prohibition against becoming impure through contact with death stems from this sanctity, and thus in the event of sudden contact with death, the nazirite must shave his head. At the conclusion of the period of Naziritism, the nazirite must shave his head and place his hair alongside his sacrifice in the flames of the alter (ibid 18). Like a sacrifice, a nazirite’s hair belongs to G-d.

The NazirHair is famously the essential expression of the nazirite in the story of Samson. When Delilah asks him “What is the source of your strength?” he responds “a razor has not touched my head for I am a nazirite of G-d since I was in my mother’s stomach. Were I to be shaved, my strength would abandon me and I would be weak like any other man” (Judges 16:15, 17).

The Zohar (Naso 121a) draws a parallel between G-d and the nazirite’s holy hair. The hair becomes an image of great strength, which symbolizes a certain aspect of G-d’s manifestation in reality: it flows outward in an unfolding abundance, beginning at a single source and multiplying out to an uncountable profusion.

The unkempt hair also bears witness to the nazirite’s disposition. The beginning of his journey is described in the pasuk, “a man or a woman that undertakes a vow to be a nazirite to G-d” (Bamidbar 6:2). The root of the word for “undertake,” “pele” means to go beyond, to depart from the normal framework. This motion is expressed by letting one’s hair grow long and wild. Even today some people see growing long hair as rebellious. Herein lies the difference between the sanctity of the priest and the sanctity of the nazirite. The priest’s holiness belongs to the world of order, the normative way of life, and as such he is required to be well kept; he is forbidden to let his hair grow wild. The holiness of the nazirite, however, is characterized by his departure from the bounds of normalcy and his rejection of the standard framework, and is expressed by his wild hair.

Another expression of the nazirite’s removal from ordinary life is the prohibition to come close to the dead, even for an immediate relative. The nazirite is an individualist. In the story of Samson we see that his fierce individualism sometimes left him outside of the consensus; as a result of his anarchical antagonism of the Philistines, his own brethren, the Israelites, decide to hand him over to them (Shoftim 15:11-12).

In his essay “The souls of the world of tohu (chaos)” (Orot, p. 121-122), Rav Kook describes a unique personality, the roots of whose soul are connected to the world of tohu. Much of what he writes could be said about the nazirit:

The normal guidance of simplicity and honesty, in the guarding of the good qualities and all religion and law, these are the processes of the world of tikkun. And all departure from this path, whether from the side of light-headedness and abandon, or from the side of transcendent knowledge and exalted spiritual awakening, comes from the world of tohu… The souls of tohu are higher than the souls of tikkun. They are very great, and they demand much from reality, more than what their vessels are capable of holding. They seek the great light, and all that is limited, apportioned or censored cannot appease them.

Rav Kook continues to warn against the dangers these souls of tohu face:

They aspire far beyond measure, they aspire and they fall. They see that they are encaged in laws, in limiting conditions that don’t allow them to expand without end to the limitless heights, and they fall into grief, in despair, in indignation, and through wrath – to evil, to sin, to lowliness, to isolation, to lust, to destruction, and all evil.

Samson ends his life with an act of destruction – he topples the pillars of a mighty building, killing himself and his enemies as one (Judges 16:30). There is great power to the departure from boundaries, but it contains danger as well. For Samson, the danger was in sexuality. His behavior earned him criticism from the Sages, who saw his behavior as sinful (Sota 9b). According to the mishna he was also punished for it: “Samson went after his eyes, therefore he had his eyes gouged out” (Sota 1:8).

In this context we can understand why the nazirite is prohibited from drinking wine. The mix of a lack of boundaries combined with drinking wine can be deadly. The Midrash claims:
“It was revealed to the Holy One Blessed Be He that Samson would follow after his eyes, therefore the nazirite is prohibited from drink wine, for wine incites lust. And if [even] as a nazirite he followed after his eyes, were he also to drink [wine] there would be no repair for him, so consumed would he be with lustful pursuits.” (Bamidbar Raba Parsha 10)

According to the Talmud, this is the reason why the discussion of the sota immediately follows that of the nazirite; it teaches that “one who sees a sota in her disgrace will withhold himself from drinking wine” (Sota 2a). That being said, it seems that not only does nazaritism offer a method to preempt the dangers of drinking wine, but the prohibition of drinking wine seeks to cope with the dangers of being a nazirite.

The linking of the episodes the sota and the nazirite is fascinating given the motif that the two share – hair. Just as the nazirite must let his hair go loose, so to the sota woman’s hair is loosed by the priest (Bamidbar 5:18). The same root – PeRA – is used in both contexts. Both of them reject the ordinary way, both cross boundaries – one for the good and the other for the bad.

In our day there is a great emphasis placed on individualism. The linking of the nazirite and the isha sota and their different fates sends a message to all those who seek to break out of the common framework and the normative path of life. This departure can be a blessing or a curse. It can bring one higher or lower, and as we see in the prohibition against drinking wine, the difference lies in no small part on the boundaries that a person takes care to observe.

Rav Yaakov Nagen
Yakov Nagen (Genack) is a Rom at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and a member of “Beit Hillel”.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir


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