Mordechai Soskil

Greatness, Nihilism and Feety Pajamas

‘Tis the season of the commencement speech. The season when politicians and celebrities big and small wax poetically about the future and its possibilities, and making the future you want, and being the change, and resisting the urge to succumb to a nihilistic worldview, however justified that may be. And I’m sure for a few hours, the young and hopeful graduates push aside images of the oncoming suffocating hopelessness of student debt to imagine a world where they can “be anything.” I’m sure that’s a beautiful moment.

It’s been my observation that graduations always seem to happen in the season our Torah portions are about the Jewish people’s experience in the wilderness and the challenges they faced. It’s incredibly easy to craft remarks about faith, community, and the goal of arriving at a promised land, and frequently my words at a graduation have hit those kinds of notes. But this year, I’m struck with a different sense: The sense of possibilities we choose and those that are thrust upon us.

In this week’s Torah reading we learn about the nazir. To be a nazir a person opts in – he takes an oath to be a nazir. And then for a period of time, a month or more depending on what chose, he needs to abide by a series of rules: he abstains from wine, grapes and vine product; he doesn’t cut his hair; and he can’t become impure from contact with the dead. If all goes well, at the end of the time of his oath, he brings certain proscribed korbanot (sacrifices), takes a haircut, and then, the end. That’s it. He goes back to being whoever he was. But maybe not entirely.

Why would a person decide that the Torah doesn’t have enough things that it prohibits, and they need to create even more restrictions? It’s an open question, and you can guess an answer the same as me. We can easily imagine that a person might choose this path for a type of spiritual first aid. The Talmud has a story of a particular young man that took this oath so that he would have a mitzvah to shave his gorgeous, dark, curly locks, as a way to train his yetzer hara (evil inclination) for conceit. It seems clear that this distinct lifestyle was not meant for masses of people to choose for a long time, but for some spiritual elite to choose this for a short time. But the key here is that it’s a choice. You have to want to be a nazir. Except for that one time.

Many of you, even the yeshiva guys, will remember the story of Shimshon (Samson.) As the story goes, Shimshon’s future mother was minding her own business, doing whatever barren women did in 9th century BCE (about), pre-Davidic, agrarian Israel, when an angel appears to her. The angel announces she will have a child and that the child will be a nazir his whole life, and she too must abstain from wine during her pregnancy, and that this child will save the Jewish people from the Philistines. Why did Shimshon need to be a nazir and why was this greatness thrust upon him?

One of my quirkier hobbies is that I learn Navi. (And I know that’s more odd than my enjoyment of all things Star Wars.) In my recent study of Sefer Shoftim I read a companion book – Judges: The Perils of Possession by Michael Hattin. There, Rabbi Hattin tries to make a case to explain the odd phenomenon of Shimshon’s forced nezirus. To do that Rabbi Hattin draws on a piece of Gemarah that Rashi quotes in this week’s parshah.

There are two odd chapters next to each other. The first is the parshah of the Sotah, a suspected unfaithful wife who was tested by miraculous waters in the Mikdash. The second is the parshah we’re talking about, the laws of nazir. Why are these two next to each other? The Gemarah says homiletically, “To teach that anyone who saw the Sotah in her state of degradation should make himself forbidden to wine as a nazir!” There’s that spiritual first aid we were talking about. If a person sees how far off course lightheadedness and frivolity can take someone, then the spiritually sensitive person should capitalize on that awareness and do something with it! At least for a short time, make it a mitzvah to not drink wine!  Riffing off that Gemarah, Rabbi Hattin suggests that the Jewish people at that part of the Book of Judges were like a Sotah – a suspected unfaithful wife. The solution is nazir! Shimshon’s leadership as a forced nazir should have inspired the people to realize that spiritual first aid was necessary. As it turned out, suggests Rabbi Hattin, that neither the Jewish people nor Shimshon understood any of that.

In the climax of the Shimshon story, he is with his third Philistine woman, Delilah. Three times she begs Shimshon to reveal the source of his miraculous strength and how to overcome it. Three times he tells her some nonsense to appease her. Three times she tests his “revelation,” and three times it proves to be ineffective. Finally, after she “nags him to death” he reveals that if his hair is cut he will have normal strength. She does it, it works, the bad guys come and so on and so forth with the eyes gouged out and the temple pillars and all that.

But what’s the deal? Why would Shimshon stay with a woman so clearly dedicated to trying to defeat him? And why would he finally give in? It’s not enough to just say, “he was in love” or “love conquers all” or some drivel like that. Part of the answer here is in noticing that the three nonsense responses that Shimshon gives are not really nonsense at all.

It will take too many words to prove this point (believe me, I tried) and you can read it in Rabbi Hattin’s book. But the summary is, that even at the beginning, Shimshon was hinting to Delilah that the secret was his hair. It’s almost as if he was hoping she would figure it out. When she didn’t, eventually he caved in and told her? Why would he do that?

Because he didn’t want to be a nazir anymore. He didn’t want to be a leader who will save Israel from the Philistines. He didn’t pick that destiny and it seems like he was trying to get away from it. (This is far from the only way to read the Shimshon story and I KNOW it’s not the way Chazal read this story. I got it. Stop yelling at me in your head. Nonetheless…)

And that brings us back to graduations and the future and the choices we make and those thrust upon us. In just a few days, I’ll be standing on a stage calling names, shaking hands, and giving out diplomas. I’ll be among the people urging hope and dreams and being the change and downplaying the absolutely logical reasons to look at the future with hopeless nihilism.

One of the blessings of my job is that I help to manage the Senior Trip to Poland and Israel. Some of those responsibilities start as far as a year before the trip, and one of those responsibilities is to help chaperone part of the trip. This year I was with the teens for about 12 days and for their flights from Tel Aviv to Warsaw and then home. It was a wonderful trip that focused on building a connection between the students and the land and people of Israel. It had good parts, it had great parts, it had pink eye, and it had ice cream. So all in all, a great experience. But when I think of the class I keep picturing the kids on the first leg of our trip home. Basically, everyone had fallen asleep. And the same way their parents looked at them when they were two years old and all cute and snuggly in their feety pajamas, that’s what I saw on the plane. Sure, they’re whiny and obnoxious and smelly, but they’re resilient and kind and brave and loving, and right then they were peaceful and cute and snuggly. And they all have the capacity to choose greatness.  I should probably rethink this whole nihilism thing.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children. And a blessedly expanding herd of grandchildren.