In this week’s פרשה, we learn of the הלכות of נזירות, where a man can voluntarily abstain from several physical pleasures, including drinking wine or other grape products, cutting his hair, and more spiritual abstentions like becoming טמא מת. There is a lot of debate amongst the מפורשים on whether becoming a נזיר is good or bad. On the one hand, we are told “כל ימי נזרו קדש הוא לה’- all of the days of his nezirut, he is holy to G-d” (במדבר ו’:ח’); on the other hand, the נזיר brings a קרבן חטאת at the end of his נזירות, showing that the נזירות isn’t 100% ideal. Furthermore, there is a very well-known פשט that we learn from the juxtaposition of our section to the פרשה of סוטה that one who witnesses a סוטה ceremony must be a נזיר for the rest of their lives- seemingly not for positive reasons. So, this leaves us with the question; is being a נזיר in fact, a good thing or bad thing?
The Gemara in Ta’anit (11a) answers:
רבי אלעזר הקפר ברבי אומר: מה תלמוד לומר “וכפר עליו מאשר חטא על הנפש”, וכי באיזה נפש חטא זה? אלא שציער עצמו מן היין, והלא דברים קל וחומר: ומה זה שלא ציער עצמו אלא מן היין נקרא חוטא, המצער עצמו מכל דבר ודבר – על אחת כמה וכמה.
R’ Elazar Hakafar said: that which was written “it shall atone for him on the sin of his body”- what ‘sin of body’ is this? That one separated himself from wine, and just as one who separated himself from only wine is called a sinner, so too one who separated himself from all of these (things that a nazir parts with) is definitely a sinner. (גמרא תענית יא עמ’ א)
This גמרא, one of the main sources of arguments against נזירות, shows us the negative side of such a commitment. G-d created humans with a יצר טוב and יצר הרע, and once one removes from himself the evil inclination to sin, he is in essence taking away part of his free will, something which Rav Elazar didn’t look very positively on. Rambam, in the הלכות דעות section of his משנה תורה, adopts the position of Rav Elazar Hakafar, writing:
שמא יאמר אדם הואיל והקנאה והתאוה והכבוד וכיוצא בהם דרך רעה הן ומוציאין את האדם מן העולם, אפרוש מהן ביותר ואתרחק לצד האחרון … כגון כהני העובדי כוכבים, גם זה דרך רעה היא ואסור לילך בה, המהלך בדרך זו נקרא חוטא, שהרי הוא אומר בנזיר וכפר עליו מאשר חטא על הנפש, אמרו חכמים ומה אם נזיר שלא פירש אלא מן היין צריך כפרה המונע עצמו מכל דבר ודבר על אחת כמה וכמה, לפיכך צוו חכמים שלא ימנע אדם עצמו אלא מדברים שמנעתו התורה בלבד…
In case a person says that hatred, desire, respect, etc. are bad, and therefore he will want to separate from them and go to the other extreme… i.e. like the ways of the priests of other religions- this is wrong, and one is not allowed to act like this and one who does is called a ‘sinner,’ as we’ve seen by a nazir…” (רמב”ם הלכות דעות ג:א)
So, we see that this concept of a נזיר’s extraction from the physical world being a ‘sin’ also applies equally much to our lives. Rambam teaches that G-d didn’t put us into this world to hide in our corner and avoid sinning by never having an opportunity to do so- we must confront the world, use our G-d-given inclinations for good, and conquer the bad inclination. Living a life without this would, seemingly, be living a life of sin, ironically exactly what was trying to be avoided by living such a lifestyle.
However, if we look elsewhere in the משנה תורה, Maimonides brings a different, seemingly contradictory perspective:
האומר הריני נזיר אם אעשה כך וכך או אם לא אעשה וכיוצא בזה הרי זה רשע ונזירות כזו מנזירות רשעים הוא, אבל הנודר לה’ דרך קדושה הרי זה נאה ומשובח ועל זה נאמר נזר אלהיו על ראשו קדש הוא לה’.
One who swears nezirut in the wrong ways, for the wrong reasons, is a sinner, but one who swears nezirut for the right reasons, in holiness to G-d, this is praiseworthy and very good, as it says “the crown of G-d is on his head, holy to G-d.” (רמב”ם הלכות נזירות י:יד)
Here, the Rambam has a more positive opinion on נזירות, if done for the right reasons. This lifestyle can succeed in separating one from sin, and living like this could indeed be “נאה ומשובח.” This is a huge contradiction to רמב”ם in דעות which decries such a lifestyle. How can we reconcile such a conflict?
I believe that this is not in fact a contradiction, but rather a hint to two different ideals in life, two different types of people. There is the nazir, who tries to live his life in the holiest way possible. In the process, he will escape the outside world, leaving behind all temptations to try to reach the highest levels of spirituality and connection to G-d. While this “דרך קדושה’ is definitely “נא ומשובח,” it is not the only type of “נזירות”, and it’s definitely not right for everyone. Others need to stay in the outside world, to try to improve it and make it a better place to live, exposing themselves to physical temptations in the process. These people, who take this huge risk to try to improve the world, are definitely not “רשעים” and Rambam goes out of his way, in הלכות דעה, to say that it would be רשעות to suggest that everyone live the “נזיר” way of life. In last week’s פרשה, we read the counting of the 12 tribes and we learnt, from various מפורשים, that each שבט had its own talents and each was holy in its own way. I believe the same lesson applies here as well- Rambam is teaching us that there are multiple ideals for a life of עבודת השם, and each and every one of us need to choose the correct one for ourselves so that we can make the most of our time in this world. Only through this understanding can we truly live “קודש להשם.”
I believe that there is one more lesson that can be learned from this teaching of the Rambam. In our פרשה, after the section of נזירות, G-d commands משה רבינו to tell the כהנים to bless עם ישראל. This ברכה, given at least once a day in shuls in Israel and only on the chagim outside of Israel, is very multifaceted and each word has profound and important meanings for us. We will focus on the last word of the blessing- שלום. This word, essential to Judaism and the modern Hebrew language, on a basic level means ‘peace,’ but Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains it a little deeper:
In a long analysis the 15th century Spanish Jewish commentator Rabbi Isaac Arama explains that shalom does not mean merely the absence of war or strife. It means completeness, perfection, the harmonious working of a complex system, integrated diversity, a state in which everything is in its proper place and all is at one with the physical and ethical laws governing the universe.
“Peace is the thread of grace issuing from Him, may He be exalted, stringing together all beings, supernal, intermediate, and lower. It underlies and sustains the reality and unique existence of each” (Akedat Yitzhak, ch. 74). Similarly, Isaac Abrabanel writes, “That is why G-d is called peace, because it is He who binds the world together and orders all things according to their particular character and posture. For when things are in their proper order, peace will reign” (Abrabanel, Commentary to Avot 2: 12).
This is a concept of peace heavily dependent on the vision of Genesis 1, in which G-d brings order out of tohu va-vohu, chaos, creating a world in which each object and life form has its place. Peace exists where each element in the system is valued as a vital part of the system as a whole and where there is no discord between them. 
So, we see the ברכה of שלום in ברכת כהנים isn’t just talking about peace- it’s taking about stability and order. In any system, all of the parts must work together properly for the system itself to function. So too, as a society, all of עם ישראל need to cooperate and respect each other in order to achieve true unity.
It is no coincidence that this פרשה is located next to פרשת הנזיר. I believe that we can learn from this juxtaposition that we, as the Jewish People, must not let ourselves get bogged down by our differences in ideology and lifestyle. In order for עם ישראל to achieve true שלום, we must understand and appreciate the different types of ‘נזירות,’ a very important lesson for us as we recently celebrated זמן מתן תורתינו, when we commemorated a high in national unity at הר סיני (“ויחן שם ישראל… כאיש אחד”).
Unfortunately, looking in the news this week, there is a lack of שלום at one of the holiest sites in Jerusalem. The so-called Women of the Wall, a group of conservative American women who would like to have more rights to pray at the Kotel than anyone else, have created a ruckus in the media to try to get more attention for their cause. In response, the Hareidi gedolim staged a silent protest by encouraging the women of their community to daven at the Kotel on Friday, a busy day for the Women of the Wall, in an attempt to overshadow the noise that the conservatives were making. Unfortunately, when the Women of the Wall started their prayers that morning, some Hareidi men who were also praying there became violent and began throwing items at the conservative women there, and it quickly grew out of hand. In an article written in The Times of Israel a few days ago, Jordan Soffer, an American semicha student studying in Jerusalem who was on the scene there, wrote about his reaction, as a religious Jew, to the friction that was taking place there:
On Friday morning I arrived early at the Kotel, hoping to welcome in the new month with joy and song. As I approached the wall, I was greeted instead by a tidal wave of fellow Orthodox Jews screaming, throwing chairs, and water, and shouting truly horrific obscenities. … I was instantly thrust into the position of spokesperson for ahavas Torah (love of Torah), compassion andachdus Am Yisrael (Jewish unity); I learned eerily quickly that the Torah I had thought was muvan me’elav (obvious) was unheard of to too many of my Haredi brothers and sisters.
… As I stood outside, I engaged in conversation with several of the Haredim (I did not end up leaving until nearly 11). I quoted the psukim (biblical verses) and mishnayot I have heard my entire life about love, pluralism and achdut. I heard about how the Gemara permits us to kill the evil. For even murder, I was told, would be justified to stop these “evil koifrim (heretics).”
Moishe, an 18-year-old student from South Africa studying at the Mir Yeshiva, asked me why I, who believe so firmly in Dan Lchaf Zchus(judging everybody favorably), was not practicing that towards the Haredim. I told him that I really try to. In fact, I entirely respected their right to protest: Sit in! Sing tehilim! If you think Women of the Wall is undermining your core values, stand up and do something. But violence? Hatred? This is simply not the way of G-d. If they object to a potential change, they have a moral obligation to protest. The use violence in the name of G-d, however, nullifies this obligation, and relinquishes any right.
Judaism is a religion filled with text. An honest observer would note that one can form a theology based on the words that speak the most to our soul. How do we choose? It’s relatively simple, the Torah says:U’bekharata b’chaim. Choose life. Choose love. Choose hope. I shared my “credentials” earlier. I shared them with all the Haredim who would talk to me on Friday, and most were impressed. Many told me I know a lot of Torah. It was a source of pride. A source of legitimacy. Now, however, it feels like a weight, a source of shame, a waste. This cannot be; we cannot allow this to come of our Torah. If we love our neighbor as we love ourselves, if we see the Torah as the heritage of all man, then, and only then will we be able to cultivate a nation of holiness.
(Before continuing, I would like the emphasize that the Hareidim mentioned above are a small, but very loud, minority of the Ultra-Orthodox community. Most of the Hareidi community, including many of the leaders, are against their extreme and violent action)
Jordan Soffer, in his negative experience at the Kotel on Friday, touched on the issues between the two polar opposite groups- that they both believe that the other is trying to undermine their ability to pray to G-d at the holy spot. This lack of cooperation undermines the שלום that we, as the Jewish People, tried to build up during the seven weeks of ספירת העומר, and it must be fixed immediately. The first step towards trying to rebuild ‘שלום,’ is for the extremists who are using violence to realize what Soffer wrote above- that violence and hatred are not the way of G-d, and no internal conflicts can ever be solved in such a manner. Once we’ve stopped these extreme and violent measures, both sides of the conflict can sit down and discuss their differences, so that, hopefully one day, they can begin to appreciate and understand each other, just as both sides of נזירות ideally try to understand each other and cooperate. Only through this can we achieve true שלום, in the fullest sense of the word, and reach our highest levels of עבודת השם, instead of creating חילולי השם with violent protests and excessive media coverage.
With Hashem’s help, we will see all types of Jewish people continuing to understand and appreciate each other, so that, through the זכות of this אחדות, we will achieve complete שלום and bring the גאולה very soon. Shabbat Shalom.
- Covenant and Conversation 5771: Naso- The Pursuit of Peace <http://www.chiefrabbi.org/2011/06/04/covenant-conversation-5771-naso-the-pursuit-of-peace/#.UZCj_bVmiSo>
- “At the Kotel, I lost the love of my life” by Jordan Soffer- The Times of Israel, May 10, 2013 <http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/losing-love-at-the-kotel/>