Parshat Naso: Human choice and divine supervision

Torah scroll (photo credit: ROOM404.NET)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: ROOM404.NET)
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Naso, we read about the Jewish nazir. This monk is not the one we imagine – a person who completely removes himself from all of life’s enjoyments, never marries, lives alone and tortures himself. This is a man who took upon himself certain restrictions for 30 days: not to drink wine, not to shave or cut his hair and not to approach a dead person’s body. At the end of this short period of time, the nazir brings a sacrifice to the temple, and then he is permitted to remove the three limitations he had set for himself.
There is a different sort of monasticism that we read about in this week’s haftara, the section of the Prophets read following the Torah portion, and that is Nezirut Le’Olam (Eternal Monasticism). The most familiar example we will explore is Samson the Brave. He is the legendary hero who was sanctified as a nazir before his birth, with a special directive from G-d, and he maintained his monasticism his entire life, until the bitter end.
Here is a short summary of Samson’s story: During his lifetime, Israel’s main enemy was the Philistines. Samson, sanctified as a nazir before his birth, was said to be the one who will begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines. After he grew up, Samson married a Philistine woman and, immediately afterwards, he got into a quarrel with the Philistines and took revenge on them.
Following this, when he became their well-known enemy, he chose again to follow a Philistine woman.
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The Philistines tried to capture him, but he bravely managed to escape. And again, he falls in love with a Philistine woman, and she – as an emissary of her people – turns him in. The bitter end is when he stands under the Philistine temple as they celebrate their victory, and in tremendous heroism, he brings the temple down, killing himself and 3,000 Philistines.
Besides this story being a great action story, every time you read it, you can find new layers of meaning.
Reading it now we find two parallel story lines that run throughout.
On the one hand, Samson’s battles with the Philistines are personal, focused on women, respect and narrow interests. He does not do battle with the Philistines for the “sake of the heavens,” but for his base desires, which are not praiseworthy in the least.
On the other hand, even before he was born, an angel of G-d said, “he will begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” When he grew up, it was said, “And the spirit of the Lord began to come to him at times,” and again, “And there rested on him a spirit of the Lord,” and after his tragic death we read a verse appropriate for one of the nation’s greats: “And his brothers and all his father’s household came down, and carried him, and brought him up and buried him... And he judged Israel twenty years.”
What, then, is Samson’s story? Is it a story of base desires and personal revenge, or the story of G-d-given heroism and leading Israel in battle against its Philistine enemies? The answer is – both. The two stories are indeed parallel lines that run throughout Samson’s life, but they are strongly connected. Samson’s actions, which seem to be motivated by personal interests, are actually motivated by G-d, who provided him with his abilities and brought him into the situations where he reacted the way he did.
This message is made explicit when the prophet tells of his father and mother who wonder about his choice of a Philistine woman: “Now his father and mother did not know that it was from the Lord, that he sought a pretense against the Philistines.” (Judges 14: 4) Meaning, Samson behaved as he chose to, but it was really a sort of “puppet show” with divine supervision, as G-d was behind the scene directing the entire story.
We find a similar message in the story of Joseph in Genesis. After his brothers sold him into slavery, he meets them in Egypt. They are afraid he will take revenge on them, but he quickly allays their fears and says: “But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you.” (Genesis 45: 5) The reason Joseph does not take revenge on his brothers is not because they were innocent and did not harm him. They obviously did him great harm, but Joseph recognizes that behind the visible story there is someone running the world and creating the story in the way that will best serve a purpose.
In the case of Joseph, the purpose was that Jacob and his sons will go down to Egypt; in the case of Samson, the purpose was for him to weaken the Philistine enemy.
This is the message we should learn for our daily lives. We often sense that people have the ability to harm, damage, destroy. But the truth is that behind the scenes, there is a guiding hand, a concerned G-d who makes sure that whatever has to happen happens, and whatever should not – does not. This faith can calm us when, on the one hand, we try to make the right decisions, but on the other hand, we trust that G-d is directing reality and making sure it moves toward its purpose.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.