This week’s portion from Numbers and its companion text in Judges share an interest in the unusual, ancient practice of Naziriteship. Since becoming a Nazarite is something we no longer do, we are inclined to see these strange words as off-putting and irrelevant.
That would be a mistake.
Let’s take a look at Naziriteship and then explore whether this arcane Biblical model has something new and important to teach us.
Essentially, in those days, one who wanted to make a Nazirite’s vow of living for the sake of God would set oneself apart and abstain from certain activities of normal life while undertaking the vow. He or she would refrain from consuming wine, cutting hair, and touching death. Once the vow was complete, the Nazarite would make an offering and experience a ritual of return to ordinary life.
The story in Judges concerns the announcement by an angel to the wife of Manoach that the son she would bear would be a Nazarite, whose God-blessed purpose in life would be to save Israel from domination by the Philistines. That son, as the tale reveals, would be Samson.
So, what are we to make of these notions and tales? Here are my thoughts.
I believe that we find certain opportunities in our lifetimes to remove ourselves from the normal realities that are ordinary, mundane, and self-oriented. In such periods, we can make and fulfill special vows by which we serve God and others.
In order to be focused and wholehearted in the work of these vows, we may find it necessary to refrain from many ordinary pleasures, such as those represented by the symbols here of intoxication and fixation on fashion (or, today, Facebook?). Such devotion would require we be fully oriented to life, and never diverted to death, especially in all the spiritual and psychological forms death can take.
Today, what such vows could we make? We might, for example, choose to engage in deep study and learning for a designated period of time, forswearing and abstaining from the ease and distraction of normal forms of gratification. We might devote ourselves to re-forming and re-orientating ourselves in fundamentally healthier physical and spiritual directions. We might develop and go on missions of service to our fellows, for the sake of God.
While it may not be our way to become monks, aloof and separate generally, we may very well seek greater holiness by a temporary separation and the dedication of ourselves during such time to the fulfillment of extraordinary commitments to God. These periods could become the “above and beyond” chapters of our lives.
It is not by accident that I use words of uplift to characterize the lessons we draw from Nazariteship. Take a look at the Hebrew.
Our Torah portion this week is called Naso. While its first words direct Moses to take a sum of the people, the word, naso, more deeply means to lift or to raise up. And “raising up” is the common theme of the whole portion. We encounter raising the heads of those that are counted, lifting up of the tabernacle, raising the status of the priests, and elevating the status of the tribal leaders to make special offerings.
The word nazir, itself, may derive from nezer, which means crown. As we read in one of these verses describing the Nazirite, “the crown of God is on his head.”
So, by all means, let’s look for those times in our lives when we can separate ourselves and be lifted up, in duty and loyalty, to serve in special ways. Even in modern times, perhaps we, like the Nazirites of old, will find ourselves crowned for the making and fulfilling of vows that help work God’s will in the world.