by Jacob Cytryn, Executive Director June 5, 2020
A colleague shared with me this week: “The Torah is a commentary on life and life is a commentary on the Torah.” One of the reasons offered for why we read the Torah each year is that it speaks to us, and we to it, in different ways from different perspectives in our own lives.
Parashat Naso contains the law of the Nazir, An ascetic – nazir in modern Hebrew means monk – the Nazir makes a vow to abstain from all food and drink derived from grapes, to not cut her/his hair, and to avoid contact with the dead. The Torah is explicit that such a vow must be for a period of time, not a permanent or indefinite commitment. Upon the completion of the vow, or its interruption, sacrifices are offered. Of particular note and the subject of debate of close readers of this text since at least the 3rd century, one of the sacrifices to be offered is a korban chatat, a sin offering.
I’ve found the most compelling explanation for the nazir‘s association with sin – a common topic for a d’var Torah when we read this parashah at camp – is that the nazir is, in effect, acting as if their body, and others’ bodies, are irrelevant. Asceticism is attempting to obliterate the life of the body in lieu of committing oneself fully to the life of the soul; that is not the work of the living but the dead. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it: The Nazir commits the sin of objecting to God’s assertion that everything created in the universe was good.
This year, the text speaks to me differently. We live in a time of monumental disruption in the world around us. To name a few of them: we are in the midst of a global pandemic the likes of which the world has not seen for a hundred-plus years; none of my grandparents (z”l) were alive the last time “this” happened. The discord and dysfunction in our political system has been highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic and its consequences. The pandemic has laid bare the inherent inequalities in our society in perhaps the most pointed way in decades. And we are grappling with the unacceptable reality of, and responses to, a new spate of examples of innocent people of color – among them George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor – being murdered because of the color of their skin. All of these, in combination, I suggest, have resulted in the greatest period of widespread civil unrest some of us have ever seen. The last ten days have reminded us how broken our world is, how filled with sin and pain and disease and death it is.
In this moment the Nazir‘s connection to sin flips on its head. It is not, then, that the ascete has sinned by removing themself from the God-created good world. Rather, it is that in ending their temporary period of removal from that world they are preparing to re-enter a world filled with sin, an imperfect and broken world that is, nonetheless, somehow inherently good. The Torah teaches us in its first twenty chapters – think of the forbidden fruit in Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah, the Tower of Babel, and Abraham’s argument with God at Sodom and Gemorrah – that humanity is deeply flawed from childhood, ra min’urav. On top of those failings, the world outside of our control – plague and storm and eruption and more – is exacerbated by our shortcomings.
As we settle into the rest of the Hebrew Bible – twenty-three-and-a-half additional books taking us from, historically, the 18th or 19th century BCE through the second (far fewer if we look at when the stories were written) – God accepts humanity’s fundamental imperfections as part of our makeup and part of the world. These imperfections are what, in the early, universalistic chapters of our national story about human beings living with each other on this planet, incite God to banish and destroy and disperse, becomes an expected part of our behavior. Perhaps the Nazir, as they step outside of that material world, owes a sin offering in accepting their future, as opposed to rejecting their past.
So how do we see the good in our world right now? I share two teachings of the Kotzker Rebbe that I share more to inspire our own processes in answering the question than a specific answer. Shared in a d’var Torah by Nehara Biala Mirsky, the Kotzker (19th C.) used to say both “Whoever cannot see God everywhere does not really see God anywhere” and “Where is God? God is where [we] let [the Divine] in.”
May the good in our world be easier to see in the near future, and may we all merit to be a part of the processes which get us there.