“The Most Famous of All Nazarites–Samson”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

According to the Sefer Ha’Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain), parashat Naso contains seven positive commandments and eleven negative commandments.

Among the many laws that are found in this parasha is the commandment to send impure Israelites out of the camp of G-d and to prevent them from entering the sanctuary. Also in this parasha is the requirement for sinners to confess their sins, as well as many laws regarding the Sotah-–a woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband. We are also introduced to a series of laws dealing with the Nazarite, the person who takes a vow not to drink wine or anything derived from grapes, not to cut his hair, nor to become contaminated by coming in contact with the dead.

According to tradition, the Nazarite is a person who seeks holiness. The commentators suspect that the Nazarite was so traumatized by the ordeal of the Sotah woman, that he determined to distance himself from all temptation. Consequently, he abstains from drinking wine in order to avoid any compromising situations, he does not cut his hair so as not to attract the attention of women, and seeks to lead a thoroughly holy life, avoiding any contact with the ultimate defiler, death.

It is for this reason that the rabbis chose the story of Samson, who was also a Nazarite, to serve as the weekly Haftorah, the prophetic message that supplements this week’s Torah reading.

The saga of Samson is rather enigmatic. Although hailed as a “judge” in Israel, Samson’s life story seems quite unrepresentative of what we would expect of a leader of Israel.

The Bible, in Judges 13, relates that an angel of G-d appeared to Samson’s barren mother in the field, and told her that she would soon give birth to a child. He warns her not to drink wine nor eat anything impure, because her child will be special-–he will be a Nazarite from birth, and he “will begin to save Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”

The penultimate verse of the Haftorah of parashat Naso, Judges 13:24, states, “Va’tay’led ha’ee’shah bayn, va’tik’rah et sh’mo Shimshon, va’yig’dahl ha’nah’ahr va’y’var’chay’hoo Hashem,” And the woman bore a son, and called his name Samson, and the child grew, and the L-rd blessed him. The Haftorah concludes by stating that the spirit of G-d began to move Samson in the camp of the tribe of Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.

The part that Samson was to play in the history of the Jewish people was unique. Samson’s special role was alluded to in the angel’s message to Samson’s mother, Judges 13:5, “V’hoo ya’chayl l’ho’shee’ah et Yisrael mee’yahd Plishtim,” He [Samson] will begin to save the Israelites from the hands of the Philistines.

The historical time period of the Judges [1273-890 BCE] was generally characterized by Scripture as a period of anarchy in Judges 17:6 and 21:25, which tells us that “Every man did what was right in his own eyes.” Only during brief respites did several strong judges arise, such as Deborah, who succeeded in uniting the people and defeating the perennial local enemies, the Canaanites.

The Philistines, however, though they themselves were of Semitic origin, were particularly strong and dangerous, with a highly developed culture, and possessed tools and weapons of iron. There was a desperate need for a leader to rise and defend the people of Israel. Although Samson would “begin to save Israel from the hands of the Philistines,” he was not to emerge as the formidable leader or savior for whom his people had hoped. The battles that Samson waged with the Philistines were almost always “personal adventures,” often in response to personal affronts and confrontations.

Samson never organized a peoples’ resistence against the Philistines. Perhaps, if he had been able to organize the armies of Israel like Barak, Gideon and Jeftach, he might have defeated the Philistines. Instead, the Philistines grew stronger and more powerful, until they virtually dominated the entire land, posing a real threat to the continued existence of the Jewish people in the land.

Despite being one of the most powerful men on the face of the earth, and, having had the merit of being chosen by G-d to assist in the salvation of his people, Samson was a man who, unfortunately, lacked the spiritual resources that were needed to rise to the occasion. Although some commentators suggest that Samson’s proclivity for non-Jewish women was intended to purposely provoke the enemy and engage them in battle, his actions hardly resulted in the defeat of Israel’s enemies.

Given the spiritual weaknesses of Samson and his failure to organize the people into a mass resistence, Samson’s story appears to be one of opportunity lost. Samson’s pattern to waste his energy and great strength on personal battles, rather than address the critical issues of national interest, never results in any real benefits for the people of Israel.

Why then, is Samson given the honorific title “Judge,” and why are four full chapters of Scripture devoted to a person who seems to lack any sincere national, religious and moral values?

As the story of the life of Samson unfolds, it becomes increasingly apparent that Samson achieves his greatness, not in life, but in death. Samson’s life was rather impoverished spiritually, but his death raised him to great heights, transforming him into a hero and model, not only for Israel, but for all humanity. In Judges 16:30, Scripture states that in his death, Samson killed more people than he did during his entire lifetime. After his death, his brothers and his entire family carried his body from the Temple of Dagon to bury him in the tribal grave of his father, Manoach. Thus, it appears that only in death is Samson’s life redeemed, achieving forgiveness for his questionable actions and his sins.

Although it seems quite unusual that a person of Samson’s flawed character could bear the responsibilities of leadership, Scripture in Judges 15:20 clearly states that Samson “judged” the people of Israel in the days of the Philistines for twenty years. Perhaps only because Samson himself was designated by an angel of G-d was he able to achieve such status. He may not have had an elevated soul, but he certainly operated with the spirit of G-d in him.

As we look back on the life of Samson, despite his many shortcomings, tradition sees a great hero, who inflicted sizable losses on the Philistines, the mortal enemies of Israel. For that alone Samson deserves to have his memory preserved and his actions recorded in the holiest books of Scripture.

May you be blessed.