Thursday, May 15, 2008

Derashah: Behar - Iron Man, Shimshon and Us

[This dvar torah doubles as the introduction to our Daf Yomi siyyum on Nazir.]

Iron Man. A Batman sequel. An Incredible Hulk sequel. Hancock. Narnia. Indiana Jones. Is it just me, or has heroic testosterone hijacked Hollywood?

During the past seventy years, American entertainment has actually gone through three periods of focussing on larger-than-life heroes, and, interestingly, each period has come at a time of grave crisis:
• The first was during the 1940’s and World War II;
• The second was during the 1960’s, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War;
• And now we’re in the third, at a time when America’s future, and even its present, seems more fragile than it has in a generation.

The focus on heroics and saviors is understandable: When we feel uncertain, when we sense that our world is dangerously out of control, we seek a hero to save us.

Judaism actually encourages us to feel that the world is out of our control, and to look specifically to a Hero with a capital H - HaShem - to save us. הכל בידי שמים, the Gemara says - all is in the hands of Heaven - and the corollary is that it’s not בידי אדם, not in our hands.

In fact, our parshah reminds us of that message, with the mitzvah of Shemitah. Under the laws of Shemitah, which apply specifically in Israel, we go for a year without planting our fields, and we abandon any wild growth for anyone and everyone to take.

As Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explained it, this Shemitah mitzvah acknowledges our lack of control. He wrote, “In order that Israel’s land, intended for the realization of Israel’s task, should not, through the sin of pride of possession become the cause of Israel’s downfall, Gd ordained shemittah” and other land-oriented mitzvot. We surrender our power and turn to Gd to orchestrate our future.

Taking it a step further, the Torah’s description of Shemitah explicitly demands our surrender, predicting that as the Shemitah year approaches and we contemplate surviving without the produce of our fields, we will ask, “But how are we supposed to survive? הן לא נזרע ולא נאסוף את תבואתנו!” And the Divine Hero replies, “וצויתי את ברכתי לכם, I will provide blessing for you.” That’s it - just rely on the ultimate Hero, HaShem.

But we don’t always look to HaShem to save us.
There is a second half to the Hebrew phrase I quoted before about Divine control. I said הכל בידי שמים, that everything is in the hands of Gd, but the end of that phrase is חוץ מיראת שמים - not everything is in Gd’s Hands, Gd left our awe of Gd, our self-control and self-discipline, our choice to observe mitzvot and live Torah lives, in our own possession. We will never be forced to discipline ourselves, we will never be forced to keep mitzvot. Control of the world may be in Gd’s hands, but control of ourselves is in our own. We are the heroes.

This heroism is not the Hollywood definition, the gamma ray-irradiated, ninja-trained, technologically amped-up muscleman. Instead, it’s the message of Pirkei Avot: איזהו גבור? הכובש את יצרו Who is mighty? One who controls himself. It’s the message of Mishlei: ומושל ברוחו מלוכד עיר, One who controls himself is mightier than the conqueror of a city.

When a Jew realizes that he is out of control - that he’s spiritually erratic, that she’s losing her temper, that he’s making bad decisions, that she’s getting so caught up in various pursuits that she has no time to work on internal growth - then it’s time for the Jew to become a גבור, and to get himself under control.

Perhaps the best example of this comes from the gemara just completed by our Daf Yomi: the gemara of Nazir.

A Nazir vows not to drink wine so that he won’t become intoxicated; not to cut his hair so that he will be repellent to others; and not to become tamei from dead bodies so that he will have to separate from human society.

The Gemara asks, “Why does someone become a Nazir?” And it answers its own question, saying, “He sees the results of sexual immorality, and decides to swear off wine.” The Nazir feels that he is losing control of himself, and decides to become the hero. The Nazir asserts control of his life.

The best example of this is the most famous Nazir in Jewish history: Shimshon.

As Rav Tzaddok haKohen of Lublin explained, Shimshon was destined to be a great Jewish leader, he had the potential to move mountains both physically and spiritually, but his sole weakness was a congenital lack of control. He had a natural wild side. And so HaShem told Shimshon’s mother to raise him as a Nazir, to have him stay away from intoxication, and from society, in order to keep himself under control.

For many years this nezirut worked and Shimshon served as a righteous judge, but ultimately, tragically, the nezirut did not keep Shimshon in line forever. He became involved with Philistine women, went to parties, brawled, and ended up squandering his significant talent.

Shimshon’s life warns us of what happens when we don’t keep close watch on ourselves. We leave the world up to HaShem, as the uber-Hero, but when we see that we are making mistakes, when we realize that we’ve lost focus, it’s time for us to step up and be our own heroes.

We generally don’t take on nezirut today, for the simple reason that without a Beit haMikdash, we cannot bring offerings to end the nezirut period. However, the concept of Nazir is still very relevant.

The Nazir takes control by imposing self-discipline in his eating, in his grooming, and in his assocations. The applications for our own day are obvious. A Jew can impose a limit on his gastric indulgence, can determine to stop dressing to impress, can retreat from society’s constant embrace. Not indefinitely, but for a period of time, in order to take charge of her existence.

To a certain extent, the members of our Daf Yomi have already taken the Nazir step. No, we aren’t teetotaling, long-haired, hermitish Nezirim, but dedicating an hour a day - the same hour every day - is a powerful statement of self-discipline.

I applaud the members of our Daf Yomi for their commitment to this sort of control. They are, in their own right, heroes.

But this is a heroism which anyone can take on. We don’t need gamma rays or a bullwhip; all it takes is the determination to direct our lives in the way we wish to go.

(And here I will do the siyyum on masechet Nazir...)

Note: For more on Shimshon and his Nezirut as self-control, see R' Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer's Bigdei Shesh to Shoftim 15, elaborating on the writings of the Tzidkat haTzaddik.

Note 2: Of course, the gemara is ambivalent regarding nezirut, despite the fact that HaShem included it as an option in the Torah. It seems to me that this is a matter of "In case of emergency, break glass."


  1. Nicely stated. Although I'm looking forward to Iron Man.

  2. I would like to comment on what you said --- "We generally don't take on nezirut today, for the simple reason that without a Beit haMikdash, we cannot bring offerings to end the nezirut period. " -- Nezirut today exists in the form of Nazir Le-Olam meaning foever, not needing to bring any korban at any point since you never intend to break the neder of nezirut :) very simply, there is a family of kohanim in the syrian community in Israel which their neziut today goes on for over 1000 years that runs in their family, the Elsheih Ha Kadosh in his commentary on parashat Naso writes that every gdol dor should become nazir since momentarily he bcomes Kadosh, and thats what the Torah states, "ki lo rahok ha davar mimha.. ki im be piha u be livavha leasot" :) The author of Torat Moshe existed only 400 years ago and he was a Nazir :)

  3. Hi Natan,

    Thanks for your comment. I was referring to נזיר עולם when I wrote that we "generally" don't do it.

    I should note, though, that a נזיר עולם does bring korbanot if he cuts his hair annually, which he is permitted to do. See Mishneh Torah Hilchot Nazir 3:12.