Nasso. The chapter of rituals that aren’t in Leviticus. Odd rituals, strange, involving magical phrases, the power of haircuts and public extremism.
I was at a Bar Mitzvah this last weekend, a mincha/afternoon service (so the young man had this parasha instead of last week’s.) He bravely tackled the “Sotah” ritual (or is it a trial?) This happens when a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful, (“a fit of jealousy comes over him”) so he brings her in front of the Priest and the entire community, and accuses her by uncovering her hair. The Priest writes a magical phrase on a piece of paper, takes some dirt from the Tabernacle floor, mixes it all with water, makes her drink it. She offers up a “meal offering of jealousy”, and if she responds physically to the water concoction, she’s guilty. He asked if there was anything we can take away from this ordeal that makes sense to our post-Enlightenment, feminist sensibilities?
Right after this is the story of the Nazir. Whereas the Sotah ritual is only for women, the Nazir is open to both women and men. The individual chooses a term of time to become a Nazir, and during that time, they cannot cut their hair, come anywhere near a dead person (even close family), and stays away from any wine or even grapes. The Nazir also makes an offering, a “sin” offering. At the end of the Nazir time, another is brought. What do we take away from this that makes sense to us today?
My Torah class talks of “scotch tape” moments. Why are these two stories next to each other? What’s the tape that connects them?
Well, there are similar elements, or at least similar questions. Hair, for example, a very personal and even sexual element – both are ways of publically stating a personal status. One is humiliation, one is extreme deprivation. Another are the offerings – what is the Nazir atoning for? Why is it the responsibility of the wife to bring an offering of jealousy? Both are done in the presence of the Priest, i.e. the entire community.
There is also the element of time. For the Nazir, each of the forbidden activities has to do with time – hair grows, grapes ferment, people die. For the Sotah, the effect of the bitter waters is that she will either be able or not be able to maintain a pregnancy (“hold seed”) It takes time to determine that. Both the Sotah and the Nazir are under public scrutiny for their behavior for a period of time, until the term expires.
Both the Sotah and the Nazir are examples of extreme behavior, either on one’s own behalf (Nazir) or that of an accuser (Sotah) And when we are dealing with extreme behavior, time is a good thing. Odd as the Sotah ritual is, it prevents a jealous husband from taking his suspicions out on his wife in private. Whatever the Nazir is working through, it can’t last forever. He or she has to end the restrictions and resume normal life at some point. We are cautioned against unrelenting extremism. Just as we couldn’t live at the base of Sinai forever, and had to get going on our journey, we can’t live in the extremist bubble either. That’s our takeaway for today. Extremism is a quick, dangerous flame that burns out. But passion, well-directed and contained, is an ember that can last.