A Nazir’s Guide For The Activist


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:03 p.m.
Torah: Num. 4:21-7:89
Haftarah: Judges 13:2-25
Havdalah: 9:07 p.m.

There are young people who become becomes disillusioned by the world, looking for meaning over and beyond the conformity of the workplace with its codes of how to look and what to be. They find no comfort in the illusory escapism of strong drink. Instead, they intend to dedicate themselves to a noble purpose, to a transcendent life, to a sacred calling. Today they might become an activist or a rabbi. In the days of the Temple, they might take vows and become a nazir.

The nazir, the Torah informs us in this week’s portion [Numbers 6:1-6], is required to avoid three things that are normally permitted: a nazir is forbidden to consume wine (and all grape products); forbidden to have his hair cut; and forbidden to come in contact with the dead.

In many ways, these prohibitions echo the conduct of a priests when on Temple duty. They were forbidden to come in contact with the dead; during their annual time of service in the Temple they did not cut their hair; and drinking wine invalidated them from service. The death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu [Leviticus 10], are attributed to performing the Temple rites after consuming wine.

Can the institution of the nazir be understood as an egalitarian form of priesthood open to all Jews, then? The comparison can take us only so far. Yet the similarities between the two do suggest a comparison: a dedication to a life of holy service outside the distractions of the everyday.

What, then, are we today to make of the strange institution of the nazir? What can it teach contemporary activists?

There are three additional characteristics of the nazir that are important to those who dedicate their lives to service: The vows of the nazir are temporary; failure does not necessarily mean failure; and intention matters.

A nazir’s vows are temporary: The Torah describes the rituals observed at the conclusion of a nazir’s term. One rite stands out: “And the nazirite shall shave his consecrated head at the door of the Tent Meeting, and shall take the [cut] hair of his consecrated head, and put it on the fire which is under the sacrifice of peace-offerings” [Num. 6:18]. Why?

The great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, in his “Nine Talmudic Readings,” explains that growing one’s hair long is the mark of the counterculture, a protest against the norms of the dominant culture. Understood as such, the nazir must burn his hair as that “prevents the noble violence one has done to oneself from becoming sweet custom, and the protest against institutions from becoming an institution… Long hair worn has a uniform, that is the great scandal of long hair.”

In other words, radical action must resist institutionalism; protest requires an end-date. “Beware of audacity that has become a profession” Levinas adds.

Failure does not necessarily mean failure: The laws of nazir recognize that failure happens: “And if any man dies very suddenly” alongside him, or in his tent, the Torah writes, the nazir’s days “shall be void, because his consecration was defiled” [Num. 6:9-12]. But the nazir’s story is not over; the nazir can try again, and again, and yet again until he succeeds. Like the activist, the nazir requires the tenacity to overcome setbacks.

Intention matters: The Talmud [Bavli, Nazir 4b] relates that the great sage and Kohen Gadol (high priest) Simon the Just never ate from the meal accompanying the sacrifice of a nazir who became impure, except once. It so happened, says the Talmud, that there was a young man from the south with a nice appearance and beautiful eyes and hair. Simon the Just inquired of the nazir, why did he decide to ruin such beautiful hair? The young man answered that once while shepherding in his village he happened upon his own image, his yatzer (his embodied self). At this point his yatzer flew into a rage and attempted to chase him from this world. As a counter to his yatzer, the young man exclaimed, “You derive pride from a world which is not yours. … By God! I will have your hair cut.”

At this point, Simon the Just kissed the young man on the head and said “Let nazirites like you be numerous in Israel.”

To explain the uniqueness of this nazir’s sacrifice, the Tosafist comments, “from the start, this one’s ( nazir) vows were dedicated to Heaven,” and not provoked or motivated by self-interest. Purity of purpose mark these vows and present a standard for activist action today.

Rabbi Ari Weiss is the executive director of Uri L’Tzedek.