Webster’s dictionary defines paradox as “a statement that is contradictory in fact and, hence, false.” In life, however, there are numerous paradoxes that are, strangely enough, not false at all. In religious life we find many such paradoxes, and one of them is to be found in the Torah portion that we read this week.
This week’s parshah is Naso, the longest of all Torah portions; it treats many subjects that seem to be unrelated to each other. One of the most fascinating subjects treated in this parshah is the practice of the nazir. The details of this practice are quite clear: “If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a Nazirite’s vow … he shall abstain from wine. … Throughout his term as Nazirite he may not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine. … Throughout the term of his vow … the hair of his head must be left to grow untrimmed. … Throughout the term that he has set apart for the Lord, he shall not go in where there is a dead person.”
Generally speaking, the Jewish religion does not require its adherents to abstain from the world and its legitimate pleasures. Ours is not a religion of asceticism. How then are we to assess the practices of the nazir? Did he do the right thing or the wrong thing by voluntarily adopting such stringencies? Is he a saint or a sinner?
A careful reading of the text suggests that we have here a classical example of a paradox. The nazir is both a saint and a sinner. On the one hand, he is called “holy.” On the other hand, he is referred to as a “sinner” — “The priest shall … make expiation on his behalf for the sin that he incurred.”
While some commentaries stress the saintly achievements of the nazir, others emphasize the sinful nature of his abstinence. Obadiah Sforno, for example, states: “He has become illuminated by the very light of life, and has become numbered among the holy ones of his generation.” And yet the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9:1) chastises him with these words: “Is it not enough for you to abide by
the Torah’s restrictions that you have prohibited upon yourself things which are perfectly permissible?”
The Nazirite’s way is the way of paradox.
The paradox can be clarified by comparing the story of one young nazir to a legend drawn from Greek mythology. The story to which I refer is told in the Babylonian Talmud (Nedarim 9b) by the ancient sage and high priest, Simon the Just: “Once I encountered a young nazir traveling up from the south. I saw that he had beautiful eyes, was markedly attractive, and his hair was arranged in curls. He had come to me to conclude his nezirut, as required, by shaving his hair and beard. So I asked him why he would choose to be a nazir. He told me that he had been a shepherd boy and once went to fetch water from a well. ëI gazed at my reflection in the well,’ he said, ëand was overcome by a passionate urge to admire my own beauty. I harshly rebuked my false pride. At that moment I committed to becoming a nazir, so that I would one day come to shear off my hair for the sake of Heaven.’”
When Simon the Just heard this man’s story he stood up and kissed him upon his head and told him,
“My son, may Nazirites such as you increase among the people of Israel.”
The young man in this story was entranced by his own good looks. He was almost carried away by a passionate urge toward self-worship and self-admiration. He overcame that urge by vowing to become a nazir, with all its restrictions culminating in the requirement to shear his flowing locks and diminish his beauty in the process.
Greek mythology tells us a similar story, but in its version the young man is forever condemned to futile self-worship. I refer to the legend of Narcissus. He was a physically perfect young man beloved by the nymphs. One nymph, Echo, loved him deeply but was rejected rudely by him. The gods punished him by assuring that he too would experience unreciprocated love. One day, Narcissus saw his own image reflected in a clear mountain pond and fell in love with it, thinking that he was looking at a beautiful water spirit. He could not tear himself away from this mirror image, and very slowly pined away and died.
Psychologists have diagnosed a mental disorder which the story of Narcissus epitomizes. They call
this disorder narcissism. Many of the features of narcissism are present in the myth: arrogant pride, self-
centeredness, self-admiration and the inability to show love to another person.
Returning to the young man in the story told by Simon the Just we can now understand that his “passionate urge” was an irresistible temptation to become like the mythical Narcissus. The young man, who, by the way, is nameless in the story, recognizes that he was susceptible to arrogant pride and self-worship. He feared lest he yield to a self-centeredness which leaves no room for the love of others. And so he resorted to a very potent “therapy” — the Nazirite vow.
By telling this story so dramatically, assuring that it would be retold time and again throughout the ages, Simon the Just addressed the paradox of the Nazirite practice. It is not for every man. For most of us it is a sin to forbid that which the Torah permits. But for those of us who are vulnerable to the temptations of narcissism the “strong medicine” of nezirut may be necessary, if only for a while.
Rigorously pious lifestyles do not render a person immune from the curses of narcissism. The ultimate paradox is that the nazir, or anyone else who lives a life of extreme religiosity, can become as guilty as Narcissus of arrogant pride and self-worship. They can come to project a “holier than thou” attitude toward others. The nazir can fail to rid himself of his self-admiration and instead become sanctimonious, cynically convinced that he is spiritually superior to his peers.
Astute observers of contemporary society have detected therein a pervasive narcissism. One such observer was Christopher Lasch. In his popular book, “The Culture of Narcissism,” he writes of a “narcissistic preoccupation with the self” that creates a mockery of traditional values. Our contemporary society, argues Lasch, is full of individuals “who cannot live without an admiring audience … who must attach themselves to those who radiate celebrity, power and charisma. For the narcissist, the world is a mirror.”
Few Nazirites are documented in biblical and Talmudic literature. There are certainly few, if any, today. But there are certainly many narcissists among us. Perhaps we are, as Lasch maintains, a culture of narcissism. If so, we can do well to contemplate the motivation of the Nazirite practices. Nezirut may no longer be the practical way to control our narcissism. But we can surely identify other effective ways to do so.
It may no longer be practical to emulate the nazir, but we are well-advised to at least ponder the purpose of his path.