Saint or Sinner
In our parasha this week we read the curious ritual of the Nazir, or the Nazarite vow. Any person in the Israelite community could choose to make this vow and they would specify the length of time during which they would become a Nazarite. During that period, they vowed not to come into contact with the dead (not even their own parents should they die), not to cut their hair and not to drink wine or eat any grape or grape products. At the end of their term as a Nazarite, the person brought an offering to the Temple, their hair was cut and burned and they returned to normal life. The Nazarite vow is such an unusual tradition and its meaning and purpose is mired in controversy.
There are rabbis who suggest that the Nazarite is to be admired and that their vow is an act of piety. Within the Israelite community the Cohenim, the priests and the Levites had outlets for their spirituality and connection to God. They had duties and roles where they could express their religious fervor. But the regular Israelites had not such channel of expression so the rites of the Nazarite provided them with the means by which they could demonstrate a desire to draw closer to God in a very public way. So the Nazarite was to be applauded and admired for their devotion to God and their self denial in order to achieve that goal. According to this perspective, the reason the Nazarite was required to bring a sin offering at the end of their term was because they were stopping their special behavior and returning to the mundane of normal life, no longer pursuing the holy path.
On the other hand, there are those who look upon the Nazarite vow as coming from a different place. They suggest that a person only takes this path to curb their excesses, usually in the area of alcohol consumption. It is argued that the Nazarite requires a structure around them to avoid temptation and to place their lives back on track. There are others who look upon the Nazarite with distain and argue that the Nazarite is a religious zealot and should be set apart from the community rather than be applauded for their behavior.
One priest went so far as to refuse to accept offerings from Nazarites because he saw them as sinners. They were, in his mind, people who deliberately denied themselves the good bounty of the earth in order to publicly show their false piety. He argued that the reason for bringing a sin offering at the end of their term as a Nazarite was because they had sinned by taking the vow and they were required to repent for their wrongdoing.
So which is it? Is the Nazarite a saint or a sinner? Perhaps they are a little of both. It is admirable to work to change behavior and curb excesses which may lead a person to harm themselves or those around them, and in that case a period of abstinence can be beneficial to turn them back to the right path again. But providing a vehicle for religious excess and zealotry is never a good path to take. If the Nazarite is so behaving to display publicly their piety in order to attract attention and accolades that is antithetical to the humility and religiosity required by the Torah. So the lesson of the Nazarite is to take the path of moderation, enjoying the bounty of the earth which God has provided for us, and continuing in whatever way possible to connect with our spiritual essence.