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Book of Numbers

Chaps. 4:21-7:89

June 2, 2017 

         The Torah contains great wisdom, guidance, and learning through human example. It also introduces some perplexing rituals, not the least of which is the nazir. The Book of Numbers teaches, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a nazirite’s vow, to set himself apart for the Lord, he shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant; he shall not drink vinegar of wine or of any other intoxicant, neither shall he drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried. . . Throughout the term of his vow as nazirite, no razor shall touch his head. . . he shall not go in where there is a dead person, even if his father or mother, or his brother or sister should die. . . throughout his term he is consecrated to God.” (Num. 6: 1-8)

Curiously, there is no mention of why one would chose to become a nazir nor how one might benefit from it. What we have is the prototype for the religious ascetic, one who practices severe self-discipline from all forms of indulgence for religious purposes. I do not stand alone in my fear of what this type of “religious” behavior can result in.

Maimonides (1135-1204) taught, “The Torah advocates no mortification of the body. Its intention was that a person should follow nature, taking the middle road.” He goes on to teach, “[Jewish tradition] forbids us from denying to ourselves any of the joys permitted by Torah.” The grandson of the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism) Rabbi Baruch states, “One does not need to engage in ascetic practices. It is sufficient for the average person to understand that in all things, physical and material, there is holiness.”The modern Bible scholar Simeon Federbush writes, “If one denies oneself to provide for one’s own wants, who will take are of the needs of others?. . . Those who are occupied with ascetic indulgence will have no concern for the needs of their neighbors.”

The prescription for self-denial required of the nazir may in fact be an ancient form of the 12-Step program for drug and alcohol rehabilitation. However, in the context of the Torah (the constitution of Jewish religious life) chemical addiction is probably not its concern. There is another, equally formidable, form of addiction: religious fundamentalism. The commentary in the Eitz Hayim Chumash writes, “We can admire the fervor and readiness to refrain from ordinary pleasures, appreciating the person as a role model of religious seriousness. We can be grateful that there is a place in Judaism for such a person, and yet be concerned with the danger of extremism and fanaticism to which such enthusiasm can sometimes lead.”

We live in a world where religious behavior is both the problem and the solution. One must remain vigilant in distinguishing between the two.

Rabbi Howard Siegel



© 2017 Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Richmond, BC, Canada
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