Rabbi Geri Newburge
In the famous tale “If Not Higher,” Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz weaves the tale of a Litvak (a Jewish person who is stereotyped as overly cerebral and extremely rational and represents a contrarian perspective to the Chasidim) who becomes curious as to where the local Chasidic, and highly esteemed, rabbi goes every year on the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
Rumor has it that he ascends to heaven to beg God to forgive the sins of the villagers, but the man does not believe this. He secretly follows the rabbi home one day and hides under his bed in order to see what he does next and where he goes.
Early in the morning, the rabbi rises, disguises himself as a woodcutter and ventures into the forest to chop wood. He delivers it to a poor widow, even lighting the fire for her. When he sees what the rabbi is doing, the Litvak recognizes just how special the rabbi is, and whenever he overhears the rumor about the rabbi ascending to heaven, the man nods and says, “If not higher.”
Though the rabbi was a well-respected leader, his community couldn’t help but wonder where he disappeared to and especially at such an important time of year. As we come to learn, this particular rabbi took upon himself an extra responsibility. Perhaps he was just a very sympathetic and caring man, or perhaps he wished to elevate his life by performing a certain deed or mitzvah.
This week’s parsha is Naso, the second from the book of Numbers, and the longest of all the portions. It shares the curious case of the nazir, a person of any gender who voluntarily takes a vow to lead a different kind of life, with explicit rules not to drink wine, cut one’s hair or come into close contact with the dead.
It is likely the last of these qualifications does not require too much persuasion, but in all cases the nazir follows a prescribed practice for a period of time, just as the rabbi did, in order to gain a greater sense of purpose or to enhance their sense of holiness.
There are several cases of nazirites in our texts that seem to elevate them to a lofty place. The most famous is Samson, who possessed superhuman strength due to his uncut hair, and whose story in the book of Judges is told in the weekly haftarah accompanying Naso. The Jewish perspective on the nazir varies, with extensive discussion and specifics of the nazirite vow, the laws regulating the individual and her/his commitment, and the ritual to conclude the nazirite period found in the Talmudic tractate Nazir.
The medieval commentator Sforno suggests the nazir vows “to separate himself from all the pleasures in order to devote himself exclusively to the service of the Eternal, to study Torah and practice walking in the Eternal’s ways.” Other commentators suggest that what the nazir commits to is simply “not ordinary,” but my favorite reflection comes from Rabbeinu Bachya, who proclaims that the nazirite is doing something “wonderfully different.”
It’s hard to know exactly what “wonderfully different” means, but it sounds incredibly enticing. Since there is no evidence of any nazirites past the Middle Ages, I think the sages are inviting us to think about the questions: What kind of person are you? What kind of person do you want to be?
We — the Jewish people — are out of the ordinary, just a very small fraction of the population, though it is relatively easy to not be Jewish in America (despite the recent spike in antisemitism). Yet this does not mean we are exempt from considering something “wonderfully different” as a community or an individual.
If we take the paradigm of the nazir as a person who commits oneself to sacred deeds or efforts, we can voluntarily bring greater meaning and intention to our lives. What little changes — even if seemingly insignificant — can we each make in our lives?
While a nazirite vow is no longer permitted, sometimes we need a moment to remember what is important in life, and to take action to help ourselves reach “even higher.”
Rabbi Geri Newburge is the senior rabbi at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood. 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 necessarily reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.