If I Am Not For Myself

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s parsha contains a very unique mitzvah, that of Nazir.  Unlike most of the commandments this one is not obligatory.  One can only become a Nazir by virtue of enunciating an oath of nezirut.  The minimal amount of time involved is a month.  However one is free to undertake the vow for as long as he likes.  The most essential feature of Nazaritism is the abstention from wine and all manner of grape products.  In addition, the Nazir may not shave his hair nor come in contact with a corpse.  He may not even attend the funeral of his parents and other close relatives.  The sole exception is the case of a “mert mitzvah”ie. someone who has no one to bury him.  Like the Kohen Gadol, the Nazir must interrupt his observance of Nezirit to bury, the “abandoned corpse.”

The question arises: what is the purpose of the institution of Naziritism?  The Torah, in general, is not opposed to drinking wine (as long as it is done in moderation) and even requires it on special occasions like Shabbat, the Seder and Festivals.  The same is true with regard to the other Nazirit restrictions.  A person should not let his hair grow wild but engage in proper grooming in order to have a pleasant appearance.  The restriction on contact with a corpse is the most difficult one to understand.  Participating in a burial is a great mitzvah which is characterized as “chesed of Truth.”  It is spiritually beneficial to be reminded of one’s mortality as this can cause a person to reflect on the meaning of life and improve his ways.  What is the purpose of this strange mitzvah?

It is interesting to note that the Torah does not obligate anyone to become a Nazir.  Rather it leaves it to the discretion of the individual to decide if he wants to become a Nazir and for how long.  This shows us that while the Torah is the most perfect way of life in the universal sense, no system can address the particular needs of each individual at every point in his life.  Sometimes it is necessary to separate from the crowd and become completely immersed in one’s personal needs.  While we have responsibilities to others we must not become so consumed by them that we forgo the primary responsibility we have to ourselves.  “Your own life comes first” say the Rabbis, which means “heal yourself and then you can heal others.”  Sometimes a person can sense that he is having a spiritual crisis and needs to refrain from activities and social circles that are pulling him in the wrong direction.  The Nazir abstains from the intoxication of wine, the cultivation of a superficial physical image and devotes himself to serious study and spiritual repair.  His focus on self elevation is so intense that it precludes him from the distraction of attending funerals.  We can learn a lot from the phenomenon of Nazaritism.  Just because something is permitted does not mean it is always good for us.  We have to carefully assess if we are overindulging in certain substances or going to harmful extremes in certain behaviors.  It takes a person of wisdom and character to acknowledge that he is going in the wrong direction and have the discipline to go against the tide and relinquish pleasures that are very desirous but harmful.  The lesson of Nazir is that even the Torah can’t always look out for you.  Each person must assume responsibility for his “spiritual portfolio” and take seriously the dictum of: “If I am Not For Myself, Then Who is For Me?”

Shabbat Shalom