Is Self-Denial a Virtue?

Rabbi Reuven Mann 

This week’s Parsha, Naso, contains the Mitzvah of Nazir which is a vow to refrain from wine and any component of the grape for a certain amount of time. The Nazir may not cut his hair nor come in contact with a corpse. After concluding the Nazirite phenomenon, the Nazir must bring certain sacrifices, among which is a sin-offering. 

The commentators have questioned the need for a Chatat (Sin-Offering). They query, what sin has this individual committed? The Nazir has simply forfeited the pleasures of drinking wine and maintaining a kempt appearance–by refraining from shaving and taking a haircut. There doesn’t seem to be anything sinful in this. Indeed, the general purpose of the abstentions are to be freed from bodily lusts and to focus on the pursuit of wisdom and moral perfection. 

It is interesting to note that the Nazir is not the only one who is prohibited from wine. In Laws of Kings 3:5 the Rambam states, 

It is prohibited for the King to drink in a manner of drunkenness, as it states “It is inappropriate for a King to drink wine.” Rather he should be pre-occupied with Torah and the needs of Israel by day and by night as it says, ‘“And it (his personal Torah) shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life.”

Thus, it seems that there is nothing intrinsically evil about drunkenness, only that it renders a person incapable of studying Torah. We can extrapolate from this, that indulgences that cause a distortion of the mind must be avoided, as they render a person incapable of properly exercising his intelligence. 

One of the greatest sins in Judaism is Bittul Zman (wasting time). This is because there is no greater Mitzvah than Talmud Torah (Studying Torah). This is regarded as the gateway to true ethical and moral perfection. I’m not aware of any other religion or culture that puts so much emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. It is safe to say that nothing assumes a higher place in the pantheon of Jewish values than immersion in meaningful Torah study. 

Every child is taught the story of Hillel the Elder, who despite his extreme poverty spent a portion of his meager daily income on purchasing admission to the Yeshiva. One day he did not have enough to pay the price of attendance. So, he climbed to the roof and placed his ear on the skylight. There was a terrible snowstorm and in the morning the students noticed the figure of someone on the roof. They were amazed to discover it was Hillel who was almost frozen because of the extremes he went to in order to not miss out on learning. 

[I believe that people raised in our contemporary culture would regard Hillel as ludicrous. For all the scientific knowledge and technological advances that we have made, we do not have a true appreciation of pursuing wisdom for its own sake, unrelated to any mundane benefit. The goal of learning as an end in itself is exclusively Jewish. Only a select group of people recognize this, and an even smaller number actually practice it.] 

 The Nazir has renounced all wine because he recognizes the dangers it can lead to. In a state of tipsiness, one can do many foolish things, and some people, fearful of embarrassing themselves, resolve to “go on the wagon”. This is a wise thing for them to do, since they are unable to imbibe responsibly. But simultaneously, this does not represent the highest level of religious function. 

Wine has unique characteristics, that are expressed in it having a special blessing and being poured as a libation on the Temple Altar. We use it in the recitation of Kiddush and other special blessings, such as those said under the marriage canopy. Additionally, it is vital to many social functions, facilitating friendship and conviviality. It is one of the great gifts that Hashem has provided to mankind, as it says, “Wine gladdens the heart of man” (Tehillim 104:15).

Sometimes, a person must go to extremes for a brief period, to remove himself from bad habits he has fallen into. This type of approach is not ideal. The Rambam maintains that man must seek the approach of moderation. He must be able to partake of all the good things Hashem has provided, with discipline; indulging only to the point of necessity and avoiding excess. 

The inability to enjoy wine in moderation represents a defect of the soul which requires remediation. Many people adopt a vow of abstention because they view self-denial as a good in its own right. They adhere to the philosophy that frowns upon sensual pleasure and think they gain religious merit by completely renouncing the pleasures of this world. 

This is a falsification of Judaism. The prohibition of the King of Israel drinking in a manner of drunkenness teaches us that it is only because of his greater obligation to study the Torah that the king is prohibited from excessive imbibing. But if a person becomes a Nazir only to deprive himself of wine, and not to aspire to a greater involvement in learning, he is making a serious mistake. This is why the Torah mandates that when he has completed the term of Nezirut he must bring a sin-offering and look within his soul to see if he has become attached to the ideal of abstention, per se. 

We must live in moderation and dedicate the bulk of our energies to the perfection of the soul. This can only be done by enhancing our understanding of Torah and Hashem’s universe, and by acting consistently with the teachings we espouse. May we merit to reach the level of wisdom and behavior where we cause the Torah to be beloved in the eyes of mankind. 

Shabbat Shalom.