“An Extreme Lifestyle”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Naso, we encounter two particularly challenging themes. We read of the Sotah, a woman suspected of being unfaithful to her husband, and of the Nazir, the Nazirite who takes upon himself a vow not to drink wine, not to cut his hair and not to allow himself to be contaminated to the dead.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible), in his comments on Numbers 6:2 cites the rabbis who ask why the portion concerning the Nazirite follows in the Torah on the heels of the portion regarding the Sotah? They explain that it is to teach that anyone who sees the failings of the unfaithful wife should separate himself from wine that leads one to possible adultery.

From this rabbinic remark it appears that the Nazirite takes upon himself ascetic limitations because he is desperately concerned that he will give in to his base desires. He therefore resolves not to become intoxicated and not to cut his hair so that he will not be attractive to women. He also makes certain that he does not contaminate himself, and strives to maintain a strict state of ritual purity. By separating himself from the temptations, he hopes that he will not succumb to the blandishments and enticements around him.

The laws of the Nazirite represent one particular approach to those who face moral challenges–simply avoid them. When faced with what one regards as extreme temptations–either eliminate them or eliminate yourself by completely separating from those negative influences.

We frequently see this: what appears to be extreme life philosophy adopted and implemented in modern times by those spiritual souls who join ashrams or relocate to the Himalayas to live fully spiritual lives, completely apart from any possible negative or alien influences. To a certain extent, some of our Chareidi brothers and sisters have chosen this path as well, trying to eliminate secular influences on their lifestyle as much as possible. In effect, the Nazir chooses one extreme lifestyle in order to avoid another extreme lifestyle.

It is somewhat surprising that the great rationalist, Maimonides (the Rambam, Jewish philosopher and codifier, 1135-1204), actually recommends this pattern of behavior in Hilchot Dayot 2:2.

In his advice to those who face medical or emotional challenges, Maimonides, who was a physician, recommends that such people seek out wise men who are also physicians of the soul who may be able to heal them by instructing them in the dispositions which they should acquire until they are restored to the right path. So, those who are irascible or easily angered, should go to the opposite extreme by subjecting themselves to the assaults or abuse of others and not allow themselves to feel affronted. An arrogant person should accustom himself to endure the criticisms of others, sit below everyone, wear old and ragged garments that bring the wearer into contempt, until the arrogance is eradicated from his heart and he has regained the middle path, which is the right way. Maimonides concludes: “On similar lines, he should treat all his dispositions. If, in any of them, he is at one extreme, he should move to the opposite extreme, and keep it for a long time until he has regained the right path which is the normal mean of every class of dispositions.”

It is important to note that adopting an extreme lifestyle as a corrective measure should never be a permanent goal, except when pursuing positive character traits, such as humility, kindness and charitability. Consequently, the Nazir’s lifestyle is also meant to be only temporary, and to serve as a means of achieving a balanced disposition. During the designated period of naziriteship, the Nazir will learn to reject the temptations, preparing himself to return to a normal lifestyle, strengthened and reinvigorated. (This, of course, goes against the philosophy of contemporary “twelve step” programs, in which alcoholics are never again permitted to drink alcohol.)

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer, in his collection of parasha insights, Hegyonah shel Torah, suggests that the Levites who killed 3000 worshipers of the Golden Calf, and Pinchas who speared Zimri and Kosbi when they performed a lewd act publicly, did not regard their extreme behavior as the proper way. To the contrary, they also believed in the “golden path” of moderation–certainly not in fanaticism. They saw their extreme actions as necessary in order to restore a balance of normalcy.

When all the people who had recently accepted the Torah at Sinai rebelled against G-d and began to worship the Golden Calf, the Levites saw it as their duty to be no less extreme in their behavior in order to save the Torah. When Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Simeon, remonstrated publicly in a particularly unsavory manner and abused the Torah of Moses, Pinchas resorted to temporary fanaticism to protect the Torah. This radical behavior, however, was not meant to be a normal pattern, but rather a brief corrective action. It is similar to radical medical procedures that are administrated when the danger of the malady is at its height, but are no longer necessary after the body has been restored to normalcy.

Perpetual extremism is not the proper path. But sometimes it is a necessary temporary palliative. It is the “golden path” and the balanced disposition that must always be a Jew’s goal.

May you be blessed.