May 24 2018 Dvar Torah


Rabbi Helen Cohn

Personal versus Communal
This week we read about the Nazir, the man or woman who takes a vow of abstinence from wine and liquor, from cutting his/her hair, and from being in the presence of a dead person.

This was apparently a well-known custom in ancient Israel. Both Sampson and Samuel were consecrated as nazirites from birth by their parents, although the nazirite vow described in this week’s Torah portion was of limited duration, with a minimum of thirty days.

What strikes me about this practice is its personal nature, in contrast to the communal focus of Jewish ritual, ethical, festival and social laws. This contrast reflects the tension between wanting to cultivate our own spiritual life, and our responsibility to help elevate the whole community in holiness. The vows of the Nazir are described in less than a chapter of Torah while our communal responsibility is stressed over and over, as shown by the number of times YHVH says to Moses “Speak to the Israelites and tell them…”

The unusual nature of the nazirite vow is hinted at by YHVH’s words to Moses in this week’s Torah portion: “Man or woman, should anyone act exceptionally to make a nazirite vow to keep himself apart for the Lord…” * Note the words “act exceptionally,” as if to indicate that this behavior is not part of regular religious life. As Robert Alter points out, it is not clear whether the text views being set apart in this way with admiration or suspicion.

It seems only natural that our spiritual life contains a combination of personal piety—even abstinence (for example, fasting on Yom Kippur)—as well as committed participation in the life of the community. Both are natural impulses, but the Torah clearly sees the former as “exceptional” and the latter as the desired Jewish norm.

*Numbers 6:2, translation by Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses