After the organizing of the camp with the mishkan at its center – the focus on parshat Bamidbar, this parsha focuses on what it means to be outside the mishkan, to be in the camp, and to continue to orient oneself to God’s presence. This is clearly the concern of the parsha of sending out the ritually impure from the camp, each one to a different degree, based on the impurity, and it is also, in my mind, the theme of the parsha of sotah. This latter parsha addresses how discord between husband and wife and the suspicion of infidelity creates a status of tumah, which then – paradoxically – needs to be brought into the Temple to be resolved, so that purity can reestablished, and that husband and wife can return to the camp and once again live their lives with the proper orientation towards God’s presence.
The section of nazir continues this theme. It is a possible solution of how to connect to God and a life of kedusha outside of the mishkan. The solution of the nazir is to attempt to recreate the mishkan in the camp, at least for him or herself personally. Like the Kohen Gadol, he or she does not come into contact with the dead, even with his or her closest relatives. He or she not only refrains from intoxicating drink, as do Kohanim, but does not even eat and grapes or mixture of grape products, and – unlike the Kohanim – allows his or her hair to grow wild. These last two extensions ensure that he or she will be cut off from outside society, so that s/he can live in a protected mikdash-reality while outside the mikdash.
However, this form of kedusha is not the ideal. First, it is a kedusha of denial, or rejection. It is not a kedusha that taps into the most creative part of our tzelem E-lohim and seeks to give it expression. But beyond that, what makes this kedusha so problematic, is that it is a kedusha that is self-serving and self- indulgent. It is all about one’s own spiritual growth and reflects no sense of responsibility to the larger society or to bringing that kedusha into the real world. This is why I would argue the nazir brings a chatat, a sin-offering. The Gemara and rishonim debate whether one should infer from this that the nazir is a sinner, or whether the nazir is kadosh (and the sin is that s/he terminated the nezirut). I would argue that he or she is both. The nazir is kadosh, but it is a type of a kedusha that is somewhat sinful, because it is completely self-serving.
Thus, the nazir’s pursuit of kedusha is not only more restrictive than that of the Kohanim, but – more to the point- lacks the dimension of service that the Kohanim embody. Even the Kohen Gadol, who does not exit the Temple when a relative dies, is present in the Temple so that he can serve the people by doing the avodah and by representing them to God. Kohanim are shluchei didan, our representatives in the Beit HaMikdash; the nazir represents only himself. It is for this reason that when Amos condemns the people, he distinguishes between the nazir and the navi: “and you have made the nazirs drink wine, and you have commanded the prophets – ‘do not prophesy!’ (Amos 2:12) – the nazir can only be corrupted, while the navi serves a greater function – to admonish and direct the people, so that when one opposes the navi, it is by silencing him and preventing him from doing his duty and his role.
The problematic nature of the nazir is most highlighted in the prohibition of contact with the dead. Coming in contact with the dead, on the one hand transmits the highest form of tumah. At the same time, a person so ritually defiled, and even a corpse itself, is allowed in the camp of the Levites, the closest camp to the mikdash. Dealing with the dead is both a very physical, this-worldly experience, and is the most profound encounter with death and one’s mortality. Hence it is in strong contrast to a pursuit of kedusha and its focus on the spiritual, non-physical realm and in opposition to the immortality of God, the source of all life. On the other hand, dealing with the dead is one of the most profound mitzvot. It is a chesed shel emet, a true selfless kindness, and the helping of the ill, the dying, and those who are dead is one of the most significant and weighty mitzvot that one can perform. The two cases of dealing with the dead in the Torah are exactly in the performance of such mitzvot – Moshe’s carrying of the bones of Yosef, and the people who were impure and could not bring the korban pesach, and who became impure because, as Chazal tell us, they had been burying the bodies of Nadav and Aviyhu.
Thus, the Nazir’s removing himself from the contact with the dead is the removing of himself from the most basic act of engagement with this world, with people, and with their most human needs and concerns. Chazal could not accept this complete divorcing of oneself from the world, and hence stated that even the Kohen Gadol and even the Nazir must become impure for a met mitzvah, a corpse whom no one is burying. When there is no one else, then no one can forswear his obligation to respond to this profound human need.
It is for this reason that there exists a special category called nezirut Shimshon. To explain how Shimshon could have been a nazir and nevertheless regularly come in contact with the dead, Chazal stated that there exists a type of nezirut known as nezirut Shimshon which allows one to become tamei li’met, impure to the dead. On the face of it, this is a very bizarre phenomenon, since the prohibitions of the nazir are always bundled together and there is no clear explanation why coming in contact with the dead should be allowed to be an exception. Given the above, however, the explanation is obvious: Shimshon’s nezirut was tied into his leadership of Bnei Yisrael: “because a nazir to God the child will be from the womb, and he will begin to bring salvation to Israel from the Philistines.” (Shoftim 13:5) A nezirut of Shimshon is a nezirut of being a shofet, being a leader. It is not a self-serving religious pursuit, but a religious leadership. And to lead the people, one needs to be mtamei li’metim, one needs to get one’s hands dirty in the physical world, in the suffering, the losses, and sometimes the wars of the people. One cannot remain completely pure in such circumstances, but this is undoubtedly the highest calling.
This kedusha of the nezirut of Shimshon is thus like the kedusha of the Kohen, a kedusha of kehuna, literally, of service. It is a kedusha of being present in the mikdash, but of serving the people even in when one is in the mikdash. It is a kedusha of bringing the kedusha of the mikdash to the outside world and of the focusing much of one’s activities outside the mikdash (Kohanim only served 1 week out of 24 in the mikdash) – “they will teach Your laws to Jacob and Your teachings to Israel.” And hence the parsha of the nazir is immediately followed by the parsha of birkhat Kohanim, of the priestly blessing. For it is the role of the Kohanim to connect to God, but ultimately to bring God’s blessing to the Jewish people.