Friday, June 6, 2008

Derashah: Naso - Narcissus and the Nazir

Note: This week we are celebrating Graduation Shabbat.

The Greeks told the story of a young man named Narcissus, who was remarkably handsome - so handsome that even one of the gods, Echo, fell in love with him. One day Narcissus was admiring his own reflection in a pond, and he declared to himself, “I love you.” Echo saw him, and repeated, “I love you.” Narcissus thought his reflection had spoken, and he continued to gaze at himself in the water until he died.

In contrast, our sages also reported a story about a young man staring at himself in water, but with a very different ending:
A young man of beautiful eyes, a handsome appearance and long, braided hair came to the sage Shimon haTzaddik and told him that he had just completed a term as a Nazir, and was now going to shave off all of the hair on his head, following the laws of nezirut outlined in our parshah.
Shimon haTzaddik asked him, “What made you decide to take this vow and destroy this beautiful hair?”
The anonymous young man replied, “I worked for my father as a shepherd, and I went to draw water from a spring. I began to gaze at my [beautiful] reflection, and my evil inclination asserted itself and urged me to abandon the laws of the Torah. I rebuked myself, saying, ‘Empty one, you arrogantly claim the pleasures of this world, which is not yours - you will end up rotting in the grave! Instead, I will shave off all of your hair for the sake of heaven!’” And so he became a Nazir, and earned the praise of Shimon haTzaddik.

Narcissus and the Nazir, two stories with very different endings. This story of a Nazir portrays him as a spiritual superhero, an UberJew wresting control of himself, burying his earthly urges in pursuit of a higher righteousness.

But the gemara didn’t admire the Nazir, in general. Instead, the gemara noted that a Nazir brings a חטאת, a sin-offering, upon completing his nezirut - and the sage R’ Elazar haKappar explained that the Nazir sinned in swearing off wine, denying himself a permitted pleasure!

Indeed, the gemara and its commentaries come down heavily on the side of R’ Elazar haKappar. Even though, from a technical perspective, the Nazir’s offering is not really atonement for sin, numerous commentators echo the words of R’ Elazar haKappar, writing that a Jew is not supposed to add chumrot/stringencies indiscriminately, that mitzvot are not intended to cause deprivation!

The answer, it seems to me, is to distinguish between two types of deprivation: There is suffered pain, and there is chosen sacrifice.

Much pain is simply an experience of suffering. There is neither clear meaning nor explicit higher purpose; it is an experience of bereavement, of loss, of paying a high price without goods to show for it. Pain is a hurricane, an earthquake, a tsunami, a buffeting by great and impersonal and devastating forces. There is no nobility in suffering pain.

Sacrifice, on the other hand, is part of a goal-oriented, constructive, act of human self-engineering. Sacrifice is a statement of our capacity to stimulate and direct our own growth, to paint a picture of the person we wish to become and then to chart a path toward that goal. There is a meaning, a plan, a purpose.

This is our anonymous Nazir’s initiative, the anti-Narcissus, forsaking an obsession with personal beauty and thereby fortifying his own righteousness. He knew the person he wished to become, and single-handedly transformed himself into that person.

Shimshon, the most famous Nazir, did the same: HaShem told Hatzlelponit that she was going to have a son, and that her son should become a Nazir. As we said a few weeks ago, Shimshon needed to develop self-control, so that he might lead the Jewish people - and so he was taught to sacrifice, abandoning pleasure for the sake of discipline.

There is little dignity in suffering unbidden pain, but there is awesome nobility in choosing to sacrifice, to build.

But construction requires a plan, schematics, architectural design; sacrifice is not a carte blanche ideal, in which we abandon randomly selected pleasures in order to emerge as better people on the other side. The Torah condemns the practice of freely taking vows; this self-engineering requires careful consideration.

To do this properly requires cheshbon hanefesh, self-accounting, in which we analyze our lives and find our weaknesses, and determine what will lead us in a better direction.

Again, our Nazir is a perfect example; according to the gemara, the Nazir decides that wine has led him to immorality, and so he shuns wine. He determines that he is too caught up in his own beauty, and so he temporarily ruins that beauty.

In our own day, Sacrifice might be a person identifying a weakness for lashon hara, harmful speech, and deciding to abandon all speech for a day, or a period of days, to get himself under control.

In our own day, Sacrifice might be a frugal person recognizing his unwillingness to give, and contributing extra cash to tzedakah in order to defy his wallet-tightening impulses.

Sacrifice is not impulsive; it is calculated, rational, dedicated to developing a better self. We strip away some diseased or destructive or dysfunctional part of our lives in order to build up what remains.

In Graduation Weeks past, I’ve spoken about Vision, Gratitude, Growth, Relationships, about daring to be different, about trusting Gd. All of these are good themes to think about, when leaving one lifestage and embarking upon another.

Sacrifice, too, is a critical theme - a critical skill, really - as you enter high school or college or yeshiva in Israel or graduate school or (shudder!) a world beyond grades and papers and classroom instruction. With each new phase of life we need to declare a Vision, to evaluate our selves, our talents, our accomplishments and our weaknesses, and then have the strength to tear down that which needs tearing down in order to bolster ourselves for the challenges ahead.

Mazal Tov on your Graduation, and may you, like the Nazir rather than Narcissus, have the greatest success in tearing down that which needs tearing down and building up that which needs building up, and so go מחיל אל חיל, from strength to strength to strength.

You know, one of the main reasons people don’t work on themselves is that it’s very easy to decide that the rest of the world is wrong, and we’re perfect:

They tell the story of a Swiss man who was in London and needed directions, so he stopped two kids and asked them, “Koennen sie Deutsch sprechen?” The kids just stared at him.
He tried again, “Excusez-moi, parlez vous Francais?” Again, they just stared.
“Parlare Italiano?” Nothing.
“Hablas Espanol?” No reaction.
Finally, the Swiss man walks away, disgusted.
One of the kids turns to the other and says, “You know, maybe we should learn a foreign language!”
To which the other replies, “Why? That guy knew four languages, and it didn’t do him any good!”

But all kidding aside, we will be much better off when we do look at ourselves, when we do understand and take seriously the importance of self-engineering, and - through learning and sacrifice - grow into our better selves.

A few notes here:
1. The story of the anonymous Nazir appears on Nazir 4b. One gemara that states the Nazir's sin offering is not really for sin - but also cites R' Elazar haKappar's view - is on Sotah 15a. See Tosafot there as well.

2. On the theme of constructive sacrifice, see also the gemara's sentiment, "סתירת זקנים בנין היא," that the construction wrought by youth is often destructive, and the destruction wrought by elders is often constructive.

3. My esteemed Rebbetzin noted the similarity to this derashah, but I still think this one adds something. And besides, what's a little review between friends?

4. For another example of sacrifice, see our rabbinically decreed fast days. There is a biblical source for mourning the destruction of the Beis haMikdash (ציון היא דורש אין לה - מכלל דבעי דרישה), but we have other fasts on the calendar, like the 20th of Sivan, days when we spurn food in the name of donating our food budget to tzedakah and motivating ourselves in repentance.


  1. Had I heard/read this 19 years ago the impact would have been deep. Sitting down to read it now, at 2:56 am, is worth printing out to look at after saying up to learn all night. Thanks.

  2. Thanks! Knowing how nice a guy you are, I won't take that as "Yeah, this would sound deep to a teenager..."

    (Similarly: I taught a Pirkei Avos on Shabbos and covered the line יהיו עניים בני ביתך, and assured people it should be read as "Paupers should be members of your household" and not as "Members of your household should be paupers.")