Did you hear about the fellow who walked out of shul right in the middle of the rabbi’s sermon? The rabbi was furious and stopped him in his tracks.
“Where are you going?” he demanded.
“I’m going to have a haircut,” said the man.
“But why now?” asked the rabbi.
“I didn’t need one before,” the man replied.
In the Diaspora, this week’s reading is Naso. Curiously, at this time of year, Israel and the rest of the Jewish world are out of sync on the weekly parsha for a few weeks.
In Naso, we in the Diaspora find the laws of the Nazirite. A Nazirite is one who takes a vow not to drink wine or grape products for a specified amount of time. Haircutting is forbidden to him, as well as contact with dead bodies. In ancient times, various offerings would be brought to the Temple at the end of the Nazirite’s period of abstention.
There are millions of people today with long hair, ponytails and the like, but one does not bump into many Nazirites. I think the last well-known Nazirite was Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s father-in-law, who was known as the Nazir of Jerusalem. He died in 1972.
The commentaries, notably Rashi’s, appear somewhat conflicted about the Nazirite. On the one hand, the Nazirite has done something praiseworthy in abstaining from alcohol, which can often be abused and lead to unfortunate errors of judgment. One example of error mentioned in Naso is that of the adulterous wife.
At the same time, we are taught that the Nazirite bears some “sin” for having denied himself a product that God allows us to enjoy. The Nazirite appears somewhat sanctimonious, which is frowned upon.
Wine or alcohol in general is a “neutral” object. If it is kosher, then by all means enjoy it—within reason, obviously. Yet the sages said, “When wine comes in, the secrets come out.” Or as the Yiddish proverb goes, “What a sober man has on his lung, a drunk has on his tongue.” Human beings have a peculiar propensity to drink more than we should, and then we get ourselves into all sorts of trouble.
Of course, it all depends on how we use the product. Enjoyed responsibly, wine can add pleasure and even inspiration to Shabbat, festivals and happy occasions. Taken to an extreme, however, it can bring out our lower, base characteristics and make us very embarrassed by our own behavior.
When an intelligent person takes part in a l’chaim it may well make him more pensive, philosophical and sensitive. In the case of a coarse individual, it may bring out the worst in him, leading to belligerence and even violence.
So, it would appear that Rashi & Co. speak to all of us. If your intentions are holy and honorable, and you are concerned about your own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, then you are to be commended for your effort. But if you could have exercised the necessary discipline and kept in control, why did you deny yourself one of the Creator’s permitted pleasures? Are you more “religious” than God?
The haftarah to Naso that we read in the Diaspora tells the story of the birth of arguably the most famous Nazirite in history—Samson. This mighty warrior who saved his people from Philistine attacks was a great folk hero. He was renowned as the mightiest man on earth. It was said that he could kill wild animals with his bare hands.
The secret of his strength was in his long, uncut hair—the mark of the Nazirite. When Delilah, his unfaithful Philistine wife, pried that secret out of him and cut his hair, the enemy was finally able to capture and imprison him.
Samson’s life is an inspirational tale but also, sadly, a tragic one. In his final act, he prays for God to give him back his strength one more time. When he was chained to the pillars of a stadium to be displayed and humiliated before the Philistines, his prayer was answered. Samson pushed mightily on the supporting pillars and when they came down, the stadium collapsed, killing many, including Samson himself.
When Samson used his superhuman strength to defend his people, he was blessed. But when he used it to impress heathen women, it became a curse and led to his downfall.
Whether it is the strength of Samson, the wisdom of Solomon or the wealth of a Rothschild, it can go either way, as it is with wine. We can use our powers in a positive and productive manner or in a rash and destructive manner.
The gifts God bestows upon all of us can be divine or dangerous. The choice is ours.