David Lerner

Peak Moments and the Nazirite – Naso 5779

Who here has stayed up all night?

For what reason?

In college?

I have to say there were a few times when I was pretty far behind on some papers and I needed to.

If one becomes a parent, staying up with a sick child becomes necessary and one might also be at the bedside of a parent or close friend.

Even just a few months ago, I was reminded of how challenging that can be as a pretty bad stomach virus hit my boys.

* * *

Last weekend, a good number of us stayed up all night for fun – to study Torah on Saturday night, beginning the festival of Shavuot.  According to tradition, Shavuot celebrates Sinai, the sublime moment of receiving, as a people, God’s revelation. We count the days from Pesah  – until Shavuot – from the Exodus to Revelation.

In the 16th century, the Kabbalists started this tradition of staying up all night studying Torah in eager anticipation of revelation when we “re-enact” Sinai by reading the 10 Commandments outdoors just as the sun rises.

There are different theories for why we do this.  The Magen Avraham, Abraham Gombiner, a rabbi in Poland in the 17th century wrote that we stay up all night to correct the “sin” of ancestors at Sinai – what was that?  According to a Midrash (Shir Hashirim Rabbah), the Israelites overslept at Sinai, and Moses had to go back and wake them up.  

Maybe they were teenagers?

The theory that we stay up to correct their mistake is cute, but I prefer to go with a more positive take, which is that we are filled with excitement and eager anticipation to re-experience the Sinai moment.

Over the years, we at Temple Emunah have expanded our Tikkun with new twists.  There is plenty of Torah learning, which this year varied from analyzing the book of Ruth to finding parallels between Torah and Shakespeare presented by our own Jeremiah Kissel, but there was also lots more: we honored our teachers and darshan mentors who work with our b’nei mitzvah students to write their wonderful divrei Torah and we had emotional moments when dozens of parents and teens come forward to celebrate their high school graduations.  

As a first-time parent of this cohort, I can relate how personally moving it was to share this moment.

And we had fun, food and folks coming together: midnight basketball, a 3:00 AM kumsitz with singing around the bonfire, pizza and treats all night long.  

And new this year: the almost seventy-five adults and teens who stayed up all night received an awesome Emunah mug!

All of this built to 4:30 AM when the first light of the new day dawned; we put on our tallitot and watched the sunrise from our new courtyard.  

It was breathtaking.  

As the Torah was lifted and the rays of sunlight came through and around the ancient parchment, we felt the generations and history present all at once.  

It was magical.  

It was a peak moment.

* * *

This is a time of year filled with peak moments  – B’nei Mitzvah celebrations, weddings and anniversaries, graduations and even this morning’s Torah reading.  It describes the peak moment of the Birkat Kohanim, the ancient blessing that the Priests used in the Temple in Jerusalem and that parents use on Friday night to bless their children.

There are other peak moments as well including the dedication of the Mishkan with its elaborate 12-day ceremony  – one day for each of the twelve tribes.

But sometimes overlooked are the laws of the Nazirite, the Nazir.  If one wants to set himself (yes, women were not generally included in this) and become even closer to God, they can take a vow not to drink wine or intoxicants, not to eat grapes, nor to cut his hair.  The Nazir is not allowed to be near corpses. It is an unusual set of regulations, but underneath it was the desire to come closer to God, to have a more intense spiritual experience. They want to experience peak moments all the time.

Now, this is a curious commandment  – first, because it is strange, second, because it is optional and third, because it is not celebrated.  This person who is devoting their lives to God in this more intense matter is not praised. In fact, when the term of their vow is completed, they are to offer a sacrifice for their sin  – what is known as a korban hattat, a sin offering.

Why?  Why do we not celebrate this achievement?  Nachmanides, living in the 13th century in Spain, explains that the Nazir should have remained in this elevated state and the sin offering is brought to atone for leaving this more sanctified atmosphere for the more mundane world we inhabit.

The Talmud, however, offers another explanation.  They comment that the Nazirite must atone for leaving behind permitted pleasures like wine.  The sin was to needlessly cause himself pain. Ours is not an ascetic tradition; we are permitted to enjoy physical pleasure  – not without bounds: there are ethical guidelines, but we don’t celebrate those who cause themselves to suffer too much.

I want to go in a slightly different direction this Shabbat.  In this strange custom, I see a lesson about peak moments and how we should live our lives.

In our Etz Hayim Humash, Rabbi Harold Kushner reminds us of the danger of someone who is a religious enthusiast.  It can lead to extremism and fanaticism – both of which are taking their toll on the world these days.  

Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) 18th century depiction from Wikipedia

Ours is not a tradition, at its best, that feels comfortable with pursuing too much religious zeal.  Maimonides sums this up well, urging a path of moderation in food and drink and many other matters.

Building on the rabbis, he urged: “Is it not sufficient for you to abstain from what the Torah has forbidden, that you seek to forbid yourself other things as well!”

Desiring to live in a state of peak moments, an extreme position is not healthy.  We see that tendency to move to extremes; our culture and technology seem to push us to those places as well.  But while being a Nazirite might be inspiring in its intensity, it is not healthy. It is seen as dangerous.

Far better would be to find places of connection, moments of spiritual meaning within our lives, not necessarily leaving our lives for some new more extreme formulation.

That is not to say that there is no room for peak moments  – we should have them – b’nei mitzvah, Shabbat, and certainly staying up all-night for Shavuot  – but these are not constant states, they are unique moments within the rhythm of a lifetime, a year or a week.  

How we find spiritual moments of connection within our lives are key, even as the fundamental peak moments remain to inspire us.

May this summer be filled with moments of deep connection even when we are not in a peak moment.

Being a Nazirite is not the goal  – living a balanced and healthy spiritual life is.

About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.
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