Parshat Naso: Biblical rehab

Jewish, moral and enjoyable lives can be lead by keeping our desires in check, setting moral boundaries for ourselves.

May 16, 2013 21:39
2 minute read.
A couple enjoys a bottle of wine. (Illustrative)

drinking wine2_311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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In this week’s Torah reading we read about a unique observance: The rule of the Nazirite.

When we hear the term “Nazirite,” we imagine an individual who abstains completely from worldly pleasures and lives a celibate, solitary and self-mortifying life. But the Nazirite that the Torah describes is quite different.

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The Torah speaks of a person who has taken upon himself certain obligations for a period of 30 days: to abstain from wine, not to shave or cut his hair, or to come near a dead body. At the end of this short period, the Torah instructs the Nazirite to shave and drink wine, and permits him to approach the dead.

The Torah’s attitude to such an individual is ambivalent. On one hand, he is referred to as holy: “The crown of his G-d is upon his head... all the days of abstinence he is holy.”

(Numbers 6:7-8) On the other hand, the Torah also refers to him as a “sinner”: "And [the Cohen] shall atone for him his sin.” (Numbers 6:11) What is the meaning of this ambivalent attitude? Does the Torah see abstinence from worldly pleasures as a sin, or as holiness? In the commandment regarding the Nazirite, we see the biblical approach to rehabilitation from the misuse of alcohol.

A life full of pleasure, joy and verve is the Torah’s ideal. In contrast with other religions, Judaism does not idolize the Nazirite who abstains from social life, nor does it look kindly upon one who brings suffering upon himself.

On the contrary, the ideal person enjoys life, naturally within the bounds of Jewish law, the Halacha. These limits offer him the ability to morally evaluate his desires, and do not permit him to become uncontrollably driven by his drive for pleasure.

Sometimes, however, an individual sees that he is losing control over his desires. He feels that he is being driven by his passions.

In this sort of situation, the Torah suggests that he take “time out.” For a month he abstains from wine and grooming, by not shaving or cutting his hair. These 30 days of self-restraint will help him achieve balance and return his ability to curb his passions.

Indeed, an individual of this sort is “holy” – but he should realize that this is not the ideal situation. Had he considered his actions, he would not have needed a month of rehab.

Had he controlled his desires, he could have continued to pay attention to his grooming and enjoyed a glass of wine from time to time. This is why there is an aspect of “sin” in the abstinence of a Nazirite.

For many, many years the observance of the Nazirite laws has nearly completely disappeared among the Jewish people. But the message of these laws applies today as well.

If we enjoy life wisely, keeping our desires in check and setting moral boundaries for ourselves, then our enjoyment will be complete and proper, and we will lead Jewish, moral and enjoyable lives.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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