Among the many things discussed in Parshat Naso is the Nazirite. The Nazirite is someone who is inspired to elevate his or her level of spirituality by refraining from partaking of physical pleasure – most notably refraining from wine and cutting their hair. At the conclusion of this period of Nazirism, the Torah describes a number of sacrifices the Nazirite must bring, including “one he lamb in its year, without blemish for a sin offering” (Numbers 6:14).
It seems curious that someone who has dedicated themselves to an elevated level of spirituality and religious fervor should be required to offer a sin offering. After all, what has the Nazirite done wrong?
One explanation found in the Talmud (Nedarim 10a) gets into the question of whether Judaism, at its core, demands from us an aesthetic lifestyle. Rabbi Elazar ha-Kafar, the son of Rebbe explains that the Nazirite’s sin is in his very act of denying himself the pleasures associated with the Nazirism. Judaism views his asceticism and denial of worldly pleasures as a sin requiring atonement.
Nahmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain) has a very different understanding of the Nazirite’s sin offering. According to his approach, the ideal would be for the person to remain a Nazirite their entire life. The sin is that they are bringing the period of elevated religiosity to an end. The ideal would be to remain a Nazirite in an elevated state of sanctity their entire life.
Rabeinu Bachya (13th Century Spain) does not accept the Nahmanides’ ruling. He writes that throughout the Torah we only see a sin offering for a previously committed sin. The Nazirite has been living in a state of sanctity and purity and has not committed any sins at the point of brining the sacrifice. Even if Nahmanides is philosophically correct, it cannot be that the Torah mandates a sacrifice for future actions. Rather, Rabeinu Bachya maintains that a person is only able to maintain the elevated spirituality and holiness associated with Nazirism for a limited time. The sacrifice marks the culmination of the elevated spiritual level. The Nazirite must go back to normal life. The sacrifice bridges the period as a Nazirite with return to normal life. The sacrifice is a means of continuing to draw the inspired spiritual energy even as the Nazirism ends.
There are certainly times in our lives when we need the extra spirituality and inspired religiosity symbolized by the Nazirite. Rabeinu Bachya’s explanation of the sin offering drives home the point that it is not realistic to think we can maintain this elevated level for the long-term. We must be able to bridge the inspired moments of life with our everyday lives. This is the true challenge of leading an authentic religious life.
Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz is spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Pikesville.