I was in the Colorado Rockies last week, and as we drove, hiked and horsebacked through the gorgeous mountain vistas, every once in a while I saw a lone cabin at the top of a hill, completely set off from anything else. Now, don’t get me wrong, the view is breathtaking, but I couldn’t imagine anyone living in that kind of isolation. I was reminded of the cliché about the guru at the top of a mountain and people coming from miles around to find out about the meaning of life.
That’s not really a Jewish way. Granted, there are times when we need to be off by ourselves, in silent, spiritual seclusion, but in general, we’re more a “this world” kind of people. One of the things I admire most about the sages of the past, like Maimonides, is the devotion to the idea of “moderation to the extreme”, not extremism. Maimonides, aka Rambam, lived in the 12th c Spain, and was a true Renaissance man (yes I know I’m mixing my eras, but he was a rabbi, scholar, doctor, philosopher, codifier and more..what would you call him?) He said, “The middle way is the Golden Path of life”. Other Talmudists talked about carving out a path through the middle, if your choices are fire and ice on either side of your journey.
I was thinking about this, of course, as I read the story of the Nazarite, in this week’s Torah portion (parasha), Naso. (Num 6:1) The life of a Nazarite is certainly extreme. The most famous Nazarite was Samson, whose involvement with Delilah, his lover/barber, destroyed his strength, and eventually his life. The passage in Naso explains more about the restrictions on the Nazarite: don’t cut your hair, don’t eat or drink anything that comes from a grape (even to celebrate Shabbat), and don’t be around dead bodies, (even for the funeral of a loved one.) And these three points are important, too: One chooses to be a Nazarite, (although Samson’s mom made the choice for him.) It is only for a designated period of time, with rituals that mark the beginning and end of the deprivation. In fact, the Nazarite must specify at the beginning of his/her vows, how long the period of deprivation will last. And it’s one of the few “holy paths” open to women and men. It’s a very extreme way of life, one based on restriction and denial, but I think that’s the point the Torah is making: extremism is not a way to live a life.
Extremism is very appealing. It answers all the questions. Once you decide on “the way”, whatever that way is, there are few decisions left to make. It presents to us with certainty, simplicity, decisiveness. In our very complex and nuanced world, that’s quite tempting . And when the extreme positions are religious? Why, then you’re doing God’s work, so there’s a perception that you’re following a more “moral”, higher ground.
It’s harder to maintain a moderate life. You have to make decisions each day, weigh options, and be able to live with uncertainty and inconsistency. But that’s what makes life human. Like the Rambam, I think it’s the more Jewish way, and I also think the Bible backs me up on this. You’re not supposed to stay a Nazarite forever. If you need that intense, spiritual life for a short time, fine. But come back to the real world, and continue doing your work.
The three restrictions, no haircuts, no grapes, no dead bodies, are very real-world activities. Our bodies are in God’s image, and need to be tended. Grapes, whether fermented or not, bring you into life’s celebrations. And dead bodies connect you to the very real cycle of our lives. Without these three things, you can easily drift away from the community, and God’s world here on earth, which is where the action is.
When a person comes to the end of his/her Nazarite vows, s/he must give a sin offering. A sin offering? What’s the sin? A 19thc rabbi wrote that the sin of the Nazarite is that s/he lived a life of deprivation, asceticism, cut off from the community. The Nazarite didn’t celebrate when possible, or mourn when necessary. And for these things, the Nazarite must be make atonement. The person had voluntarily removed him/herself from the natural and real rhythms of life, where God keeps telling us to find the world’s sacredness.
Extremism shouldn’t last forever. Go up to that mountain top, breathe, view, absorb, whatever. Then come back down and share with the rest of us.