The Torah speaks this week about the Nazarite, the person who commits him or herself to special vows of abstinence. Such vows were undertaken for a period of time as a way of gaining God’s favor, or to express gratitude for it.
We are really not sure of all the prohibitions involved in taking such a vow. The Torah speaks of avoiding alcohol and contact with the dead. Hair was not to be cut. This was to be a time of abstaining from excessive luxuries and pleasures, whether for a period of a month or for years. In all likelihood, it included prolonged periods of sexual abstinence and fasting. It was a time of self-imposed spiritual and social isolation.
Here was a person seeking, what he or she believed to be, the highest holiness in life. And so important and telling is our sages’ response to one who sought to be even more religious or more observant than the Torah requires. Our early rabbis and sages condemned and rejected the institution of Nazarite feeling that it could lead a person away from involvement with other people…that it could promote feelings of self-righteousness and superiority, and a false sense of what it means to be religious, at least in a Jewish sense.
And I think there’s an important message here for all of us. The idea that living a religious life in the Jewish sense has to do with more than speaking prayers and blessings in Hebrew, and performing the rituals of our religion. Yes, those things are important as they link us to other Jews, and as they remind us of our shared history and destiny. But our prayers and our practices and rituals: most of all they seek to send us into the real, everyday world, determined to make this world a more Godly place. And for us, that has everything to do with acts of kindness and pursuing justice, and what we call Tikun Olam, trying “to fix the world” of some of its brokenness.
Rabbi David Greenberg