By Rabbi Nathan Martin
As many of us find ourselves emerging from the forced social isolation caused from the pandemic, I was surprised to find some interesting connections to this moment in this week’s Torah portion with the laws of the nazarite.
A nazarite is someone who takes a vow to set themselves apart from society for the sake of YHVH. (The Hebrew root letters, N-Z-R pertain to the idea of consecration and separation). For the duration of their vow they abstain from alcohol and from cutting their hair. Both of these actions can be seen as ascetic or more extreme behaviors that potentially diminish social interaction and physically mark oneself as different or separate.
And just as the creation of holiness is accompanied by separation (Shabbat is separated from the week), the nazarite’s actions are also viewed as steps of separating and dedicating oneself to the holy.
The parallels to today’s moment are striking. During this time of social distancing we, too, have had to refrain from social interaction, to set ourselves apart. And, like the refraining from cutting hair (which many of us also refrained from in the past year!), the wearing of masks in public has also been a way of setting ourselves apart. And, I would argue that all of this behavior was in service of the sacred, of the higher ideal of recognizing and preserving the value and sanctity of life (ours and others).
So what happens when the term of the nazarite’s vow is complete? How do they mark that transition? The Torah text is very explicit: The nazarite must bring a variety of offerings to the sacred center of the camp, an offering fully for the divine (olah), one for having potentially brought about impurity (hattat), an offering of gratitude for their state of wholeness (shelamim), and an offering of unleavened cakes (matzot). Finally the nazarite also offers their shaven hair, the symbol of their separation, into the flames as well.
While we may not have the same clarity and distinction as the nazarite of when our term of isolation ends, there are specific moments of demarcation. It has been powerful to hear friends and colleagues talk about hugging a parent or grandchild, or being able to have a meal with close friends unmasked. All of these simple pleasures of connection, simply assumed before the pandemic, take on the air of a sacred re-encounter with each other.
But it can be worth examining more closely the components of the nazarite’s transition:
Just as the nazarite’s first offering, the olah, is dedicated to God, how might we also mark our transitions back from an end of isolation with offerings that acknowledge the sacred work of preserving life? Perhaps this might mean tzedakah to some element of the health care community, or it might be reaching out in some way to thank those who have risked their lives as front line workers.
The nazarite’s second offering of return, the hattat, acknowledges that they may have inadvertently impurified the camp. This too relates to us. We may have inadvertently transmitted the virus ourselves. And we know that we struggled as a broader community to do so and half the transmission of the virus in the country.
Our contemporary offering here might also be the work of compassion: for ourselves as we struggled in our social isolation and for others who also did so; even those who chose to have more contact than we would have opted for.
The third offering, the shelamim, invites us to inculcate gratitude for our health and well-being and to continue to rededicate ourselves to the task of not only taking care of our own bodies but of those around us. How can we strive to repair the structures necessary to provide everyone with adequate health care resources?
And finally, the matzot, a symbol here of purity but also one of liberation. The pandemic has brought to light the deep rifts in our country, how racism exacerbated the pandemic in communities of color. The matzot invite us to continue the broader work of building a more equitable and fair society.
Finally, we should note that for the nazarite to be successful in their vow they needed the support and participation of the broader community. They live interdependently with the broader camp of Israel. At this moment of return of many from isolation we too must find ways to recognize our interdependence on each other, both locally and globally.
Like the nazarite’s offerings, we must use this moment to offer our time and energies to help bring more wholeness into our communities. May our isolation and sacrifice lead us not only to more personal wholeness, but to more wholeness in our world as well.
Nathan Martin serves as the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Media and chairs the board of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, a nonprofit focused on interfaith action around climate change. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.