Balancing the Extremes of Parshat Nasso

Our sedra initially continues last week’s count of the levi’im by presenting the result of the census of the families of Gershon and Merari. Then, the Jews are given the commands of sending tamei people outside of the camp, and the serious transgressions of a Sotah. After this, without as much as a witty segue, the halachot of the Nazir are given over to the Jewish People.
Many may recall Rashi’s well-known explanation of the puzzling juxtaposition of the seeming opposites of Sotah and Nazir:

כי יפלא – יפריש. למה נסמכה פרשת נזיר לפ’ סוטה לומר לך שכל הרואה סוטה בקלקולה יזיר עצמו מן היין שהוא מביא לידי ניאוף
… And why is the section of Nazir so close to the section of Sotah? To show that whoever sees a Sotah in her cursedness must take upon himself a separation from wine, which causes this type of behavior… (רש”י על במדבר ו:ב)

Rashi interprets this semicha almost as a biblical fulfilment of Newton’s Third Law of Motion- for every action in the world, there is an equal and opposite reaction. A Sotah disgraced herself by violating yichud and isolating herself with another man. The treatment of a Sotah is equally disgraceful to her, even if she was innocent and does not die, to demonstrate to her and everyone else the severity of her actions. Anyone who sees this process unfold will understand the danger of drinking wine and becoming too attached to physical features, both of which can lead to lewdness, and will swear off of them to distance himself from this terrible sin, and become a Nazir.
Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra offers a similar, yet not nearly as popular, interpretation:

יש אומרים שטעם הסמך פרשת נזיר לפרשת סוטה שיהיה לה בן נזיר אם לא נטמאה ולפי דעתי כי נסמכה בעבור נזירת האשה שהיא הפך המועלת כי רובי העבירות סבתם היין ואשה שלא תתקן שער ראשה איננה מבקשת להבעל
It is possible to say the reason that the sections of Nazir and Sotah are juxtaposed is… so that a woman will become a [female] Nazir when hearing about [the Sotah incident], because no one will try to have an  affair with a woman who does not drink and has shaved her head (ראב”ע, סוף פרק ה)

Ibn Ezra sees the connection as a warning to women not be too concerned about their physical appearances and to avoid drinking with men (something they are later warned against several times in Pirkei Avot and Mishlei)- he reminds us, the readers, that men are very physical creatures and, therefore, a woman who avoids drinking with men and one whose head is shaved most likely won’t get involved in a Sotah incident. According to Ibn Ezra, Nezirut is not a reaction to seeing the disgrace and sin of a Sotah- it’s a preventative measure, to avoid a Sotah situation.
Both of these interpretations come to explain the necessary situations in which one would assume the holy mission of becoming a Nazir. However, we’ve previously seen that not all sources see Nezirut as a positive undertaking. In fact, the Gemara (תענית יא:א) sees it as a ירידה לצורך עליה, a spiritual downgrade to allow for eventually reaching an even higher level of spirituality. R’ Elazar Hakafar explains there that a Nazir is in fact a sinner for attempting to change human nature. G-d created us with good and evil inclinations, and once one attempts to remove the yetzer hara, he is effectively taking away part of his free will, something which Rambam (הלכות דעות ג:א) calls “wrong,” “sinning,” and “acting like priests of the idol worshippers.”
Now that we understand that Nezirut may not be so ideal, it’s very easy to see the significance of its juxtaposition to Sotah. The Sotah is a woman who was too involved in her looks, and this led her to sin by secluding herself with a man forbidden to her. On the other hand, the Nazir is someone who goes to the other extreme- he is so afraid of sinning, that he doesn’t let himself become involved in the physical parts of the world, like the way he looks.
The end results are just as radically different. The Sotah’s head is shaved as a reminder that she must involve herself less in the world, to avoid sinning in the future (if she was innocent, that is, and isn’t killed by the mei chatat). The Nazir is not allowed to shave his head, possibly to emphasize to him that he must involve himself more in the world, and that this one part of his physical looks must be left be.

We’ve now seen that neither the Sotah nor Nazir lead ideal lifestyles, and this juxtaposition of complete opposites is a warning against going to either extreme. So, what is the best solution? How should we be living our lives?

I believe that the answer lies in the section which comes immediately after Nezirut, the Priestly Blessing of Aharon and his sons to the Jewish People, which consists of three different pesukim:

בָרֶכְךָ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ :יָאֵר ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ: יִשָּׂא ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם: (ו:כד-כו)

Most of the meforshim interpret the first two berachot as being exclusively physical. Rashi teaches that “יברכך ה’ וישמרך” is a blessing of being successful and maintaining this success in one’s primarily business endeavors. Chizkuni interprets the second beracha slightly more broadly- a blessing for a good and wholesome physical life.
Only in the last beracha, is there a more spiritual sentiment, and this I believe is the key to our entire sedra. Chizkuni writes there that “ישא ה’ פניו אליך” is a blessing for happiness- for seeing Hashem’s hand in our lives, and realizing that He is standing with us. With this understanding comes true happiness and שלום, the peace that one has both with himself and the world.

We have seen in Parshat Nasso both types of extremes. We’ve read of the mistake of the Sotah, who focused exclusively on the physical and sinned terribly as a result, and we’ve warned to distance ourselves from the pitfalls of the Nazir, who mistakenly rids himself of all physicality in an effort to avoid sin. Anyone who seeks either of these extremes usually does so in an effort to find inner peace, to try to reconcile himself with the world. The lesson of the progression of our sedra is a warning against going to either extreme, of listening too much to our evil inclination or not listening enough. We can see that in order to be truly at peace, we must avoid the temptation of quick, shallow change, and instead embark on the deeper journey of seeking out Hashem’s light and His presence in our lives. This is the only path to true peace with ourselves and the world, complete and absolute שלום.
If we can succeed at this difficult task then, with Hashem’s help, we will all merit to receive His blessing, via the Kohanim, of “וישם לך שלום,” becoming at peace with who we are. Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Born and raised in Teaneck NJ, Tzvi Silver moved to Israel in 2012 after catching aliyah fever while learning abroad. Tzvi is now pursuing a degree in Engineering from the Jerusalem College of Technology, and works on the side as a contributor for local newspapers in the New York Area. Tzvi's interests include learning Torah, rabble-rousing, and finding creative ways of mixing the two.
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