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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

The Elevation of Holiness

by Jason Goldstein (Posted on June 13, 2024)
Topics: Naso, Sefer Bamidbar, Torah

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There is a paradox in the Torah’s description of a nazir. One the one hand, someone who takes a vow of nazirut, and is therefore forbidden to drink wine, cut his hair, or come into contact with a dead body, is “holy to Hashem” throughout the entire term of separation (Bamidbar 6:8). On the other hand, upon the completion of this holy service he is compelled to offer a korban chatat, as if he did something wrong. Why does a nazir bring a sin offering upon returning to normal life? This question has plagued our commentators since the time of the Gemara.

Many explain that while halacha sets out discrete rules to live by through restricting certain actions, it is sinful to add to these restrictions. We are expected to be a part of the world, not apart from it. R. Eliezer HaKapar explains that the requirement to bring a korban chatat upon the disruption of one’s nazirut by accidentally coming into contact with a corpse is to atone for electing to become a nazir in the first place. The nazir sinned by causing himself undue distress by abstaining from wine (Taanit 11a). By adopting a life of asceticism, he removes himself from the legitimate pleasures of this world. The key to a life of meaning is not withdrawal, but moderation. This argument is eloquently presented by the Rambam: “The upright path is the middle disposition found in each and every tendency of all the human tendencies.” Therefore, one who desists from consuming meat or wine, marrying, or living in respectable accommodations is following an “evil path” and “he who follows this way is called a sinner, as it is said of a Nazir.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 3:1,4)

However, despite the moral solidity of this approach, the text itself appears to belie this position. The root ק.ד.ש (holy) appears no less than three times in this passage in relation to the nazir. The overall gist of the chapter seems laudatory of the nazir’s vow. Why then must he offer the korban chatat? The Ramban offers the most satisfying answer: “This man sins against his soul when he completes his term as a nazir; because now he holds back from his (elevated level of) holiness and service to God. (Ramban on Bamidbar 6:14)

The nazir requires atonement for returning to everyday life. In fact, the Ramban emphasizes that a nazir should ideally remain in the superlative state of nezirut for his entire life. To be a nazir means to live a life of heightened holiness and service to Hashem.

The restrictions of the nazir naturally lead us to consider another figure who embodies both holiness and divine service, namely, the kohen gadol—the high priest. Bamidbar Rabah (10:11) draws a comparison between these two figures. Just as a nazir may not drink wine, kohanim may not serve in the Temple while intoxicated. Neither a nazir nor the kohen gadol may contract ritual impurity through contact with a corpse, even that of a close relative. Both have restrictions related to hair growth; a nazir may not cut his hair and the kohen gadol may not let his hair grow wild. Additionally, the Torah describes a nazir as having a “nezer (crown) of his God upon his head” (Bamidbar 6:7), while the kohen gadol has “the nezer (crown) of his God’s anointing oil upon him” (Vayikra 21:12).

The implication is that while only a select few have the opportunity to infuse their lives with holiness by serving as the kohen gadol, every Jew has the ability to reach a similar level by taking the nazirite vows.

From a practical perspective, in deference to the Rambam, it may be unwise to take on such an extreme path as that of nazirut, but the lesson inherent in our parshah nonetheless serves as a guide to enhance our religious lives. Each of us have the opportunity to increase holiness in our lives and imbue our service of God with greater meaning. We need not necessarily be priests, great scholars, nor mystically inclined to reach this level. All we need is purity of heart and the willingness to make ourselves “holy to Hashem.”

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