Rabbi David Walk
Not long ago I bumped into with an old friend. We hadn't schmoozed in quite a while, and so we decided to catch up with our family developments. I explained that my married kids are all in Israel; teachers, a doctor, an electrician, and students all of whom are working towards professional degrees. Then it was his turn. He had three married kids, which included two sons and a son in law studying in kollel. I found that interesting. Our backgrounds are very similar, NCSY and YU. So, how can one explain the clearly modern viewpoint of my kids and the quite charedi or ultra-Orthodox bent of his? Clearly, this is a tiny and non-scientific population sample. Therefore, I am going to make outrageously sweeping conclusions based on pretty much nothing. I'd love to pat myself on the back and claim that I succeeded in passing on my world view, but, in reality, I think that the biggest factor is Israel as opposed to the United States. I further believe that we both did give our kids a passion for Judaism, but that enthusiasm gets expressed in different ways in these very different venues. In America we tend to express our fervor by getting frum. We display our zeal in chumrot, legal stringencies. In Israel we can exhibit this ardor in other ways, like politics, settlement or nation building. I'm very biased, but I prefer the Israeli way. I think that this week's Torah reading deals with a similar phenomenon.
Our parsha introduces the mitzvah of the nazir or nazirite. Here's the deal with the nazir: When either a man or a woman takes the special vow of a Nazirite, consecrating himself to the Lord in a special way, he must not thereafter, during the entire period of his special consecration to the Lord, taste strong drink or wine or even fresh wine, grape juice, grapes, or raisins!... Throughout that time he must never cut his hair, for he is holy and consecrated to the Lord… And he may not go near any dead body during the entire period of his vow, even if it is the body of his father, mother, brother, or sister; for his vow of consecration remains in effect (Numbers 6:2-7). So, we have three restrictions on the behavior of these voluntary ascetics: no wine, no haircuts, no contact with corpses. They are minimizing their enjoyment and their concern for how they look while maintaining a state of ritual purity.
Why might some people feel this need for greater spiritual expression? Because the Jews described here at the beginning of the book of Numbers were getting ready to leave Mt. Sinai and head for the Promised Land. There the Jewish people would lead a life of practicality based upon farming, business and every day living. Many of a more spiritual nature would long for the time spent in the shadow of Mt. Sinai, where they lived an other-worldly life in close proximity to God. The Torah doesn't want to squash those emotions; it wants to give a healthy outlet for those longings. But is this quasi retreat from the real world a good thing or a negative?
Maimonides explains: A person might say, "Since envy, desire are a wrong path and drive a person from the world, I shall move away from them to the opposite extreme." This, too, is a bad path and it is forbidden to walk upon it. Whoever follows this path is called a sinner as implied by Numbers 6:11's statement concerning a nazirite: 'and the priest shall make an atonement for him, for his having sinned regarding [his] soul.' Therefore, our Sages directed man to abstain only from those things which the Torah denies him and not to forbid himself permitted things by vows and oaths. Thus, our Sages stated: Are not those things which the Torah has prohibited sufficient for you that you must forbid additional things to yourself? (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Character, 3:1-3). So, Maimonides is firmly against taking a time-out from life to become immersed in cloistered spirituality. Hiding from the normal responsibilities of life is wrong.
But that's not the whole picture. Maimonides writes later in the Laws of a Nazirite: If, however, a person takes a nazirite vow to God in a holy manner, this is delightful and praiseworthy and concerning this, [Numbers 6:7-8] states: "The diadem of his God is upon his head... He is holy unto God." In this passage Maimonides highly praises the nazirite. Which is it? Of course, it's both. The Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh (Rav Chayim Attar, 1690-1750) already pointed this out in his commentary to the verse, 'Speak to Israel and say to them (Numbers 6:2).' Rav Attar points out that the double language of 'speak (daber)' and 'say (v'amarta)' implies communicating both harshly and soothingly. He further explains that there are two categories of nazirites, one worthy of criticism and the other of praise. One is sincerely attempting to increase God's presence in our world. What's the other one doing? I think that person is hiding from reality. And that's bad.
Someone who has become upset with life, because it seems so meaningless may want a time out to reassess goals. That's the necessary evil Maimonides speaks about, and hopefully the practitioner comes out with newfound enthusiasm for life. On the other hand, someone who is inspired to expand spiritual horizons, further God's message of morality to humankind is fabulous.
The same thing is true of kollel. Since the forty year sojourn in the desert, the numbers of those studying Torah full time has been small. Most of our Sages had regular jobs. Today, there are, perhaps 200,000 men studying Torah full time, post high school. Like nazirites, I believe that some signed up for positive reasons and others for negative (like social pressure or avoidance of other possibilities). One group should be encouraged and praised; the other discouraged.
I hope and pray that all of our children are committed to making this world a better place and more receptive to Torah and God. Generally, that's accomplished by actually interacting with the world.