Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Easy Button - Reflections on Parashat Nasso 5775

America is, by and large, a shortcut culture. Want to make a fast fortune? Find a shortcut for something people hate to do. TV remotes. Wash & wear clothes. Plastic food. Online shopping. EZPass. Tan in a Can. Diet Pills. If there's a shortcut, you can be assured that we'll find it.

This week's Torah portion talks about the dangers of spiritual shortcuts. In it we read the segment about the Nazir (a term for which there is no adequate English translation.) 

Who is a Nazir? Any person who, with great public fanfare, swears off wine (alcohol) and by extension ANY product made of, or containing grapes; who must let their hair grow long and shaggy; and who cannot become exposed to death (tumat hamet) - even for their closest relatives, like mom and dad. (To gain a deeper understanding of tumat hamet, click HERE.)

Is the Nazir to be praised for his self-denial or is he to be condemned? On the one hand, the Torah describes the Nazir as 'kadosh,' holy. On the other hand, he must bring a sin offering upon the successful completion of the vow.

There are venerable rabbinic voices down through ages on both sides of that question. I stand firmly with those who condemn the Nazir.

Consider the following: why would anyone in their right minds undertake such a disruptive, restrictive oath? What kind of mindset would volunteer for the life of a religious ascetic? 

An out-of-control person, that's who. Like a raging alcoholic, who desperately hopes that the power of the oath will buttress his weakening resolve.

Or perhaps someone who needs to call attention to themselves; one who derives self-esteem in holding themselves to a higher standard than their peers. This individual constantly gauges their religious performance against others - and consistently finds everyone else lacking. This type of Nazir finds bargain-basement self-esteem - not through hard work and honest achievement, but through building himself up by tearing others down.

And by the way: who (besides our Nazir) is the one other person on the planet who cannot be exposed to tumat hamet, even for a spouse, parent, sibling or child? Answer: the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest of Israel.

On a certain level, the Nazir is trying to be as holy as High Priest himself. 

It takes a lifetime for a person to prepare for the awesome responsibilities of the office of High Priest; but our Nazir, by mumbling a few words, catapults himself from zero-to-holy in 4.3 seconds. Neat trick.

The Nazir is trying to take a spiritual shortcut, and the Torah suggests that there are no shortcuts in the ethereal realm. That's why the Nazir brings the sin offering, and that's why the burning of the hair.

A sin offering (chatat) is brought for the commission of an inadvertent sin: the person meant no harm, but accidentally violated a serious Torah prohibition. Thus the Nazir brings a sin offering because his intent for self-improvement was laudable, but the execution was flawed.

And in one of the most curious aspects of the ending ritual of Nazir, his/her hair is shaved off their head and thrown into the fire. Why? This luxurious mane of hair, this very public sign of the Nazir vow, is symbolic of the entire Nazir experience. And in the end, it goes up in smoke. The acrid smell of the burning hair says: your spiritual shortcut accomplished nothing, your self-abnegation was all for nought, you're back where you started, you still have to deal with your issues.

Because no vow, no pill, no Easy Button, can fix the things that are wrong in your life.

We don't have the Nazir vow in our day. But sadly, we still see the all-too-human Nazir impulse: not just in the addictive personality, but in mean-spirited, petty people who derive their self-esteem by denigrating others - with an acerbic tongue, or an arrogant attitude, or competitors in the frumkeit (holier-than-thou) olympics.

There are no shortcuts to spiritual growth and development. Spiritual growth is hard work. It requires humility and introspection; a sober evaluation of one's strengths and weaknesses; a receptiveness to the still, small voice inside us all; a willingness to see steady change over time; consistency; and patience with oneself. It requires Torah study and deepening our performance of mitzvot. It requires constant vigilance against complacency, intellectual stagnation and arrogance. It's the work of a lifetime - you can't bang it out in a weekend or two, or sub it out, or find easy answers on the internet. It's the ultimate do-it-yourself project and it comes with no instruction booklet. 

But the results of applied effort will, over time, yield inner peace, wisdom, and improved relationships. And if everybody on the planet focused on fixing themselves, imagine the kind of world we would inhabit! That is the Torah's eschatological vision; and isn't that the place where we're all trying to get to?

So instead trying to impress everyone with ostentatious demonstrations of piety, do something truly Jewish: fix yourself from the inside out, and by extension, repair the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

1 comment: