From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
The mightiest man in the Bible was, of course, Samson. He took on the most savage of beasts and leveled a stadium with his bare hands. In the end, Samson was undone by Delilah, who cut his hair. So why should such an innocuous event have sapped his strength? The answer is that Samson was a Nazirite. And as we read in this week’s parashah, the sacred vow of the Nazirite precludes him from cutting his hair, coming into contact with the dead, and drinking wine.
At the end of a person’s Nazirite period, there were certain atonement offerings he needed to bring at the Temple. The Talmud asks, why should a Nazirite, who essentially was taking upon himself voluntary prohibitions beyond the letter of the law, be required to seek atonement? What sin did he commit? One Talmudic opinion suggests that he denied himself the pleasure of drinking wine, and that is considered sinful.
Now the question is, why is it wrong to deny oneself anything? Just because the Creator allows us to enjoy the fruit of the vine, is it wrong to decline? Will I really be held accountable for every product that bears a kosher certification which I choose to do without? Just because a popular ice cream was recently approved by the kashrut authorities, am I a sinner for sticking to sorbet? And if I haven’t yet made it to that fancy kosher restaurant in Manhattan, am I desperately in need of some atonement?
The answer, it would appear, has more to do with attitude and perspective than with blatant iniquity. What is the right way to live? What should be our approach to Gâ€‘d’s creation and the material world? Do we need to divorce ourselves from society in order to be holy? Should we reject anything that isn’t wholly spiritual because we fear it may interfere with our piety?
There are ideologies that preach celibacy and revere those who sequester themselves from the daily grind of worldly activity. They see the body as unclean and marriage is a less than ideal concession to human frailty. Then there are some who climb mountains to escape to the spiritual realms. The heavens are far more blissful and sublimely beautiful than the crass street corners and alleyways of city life.
Judaism sees it differently. We follow neither rejectionist nor escapist theologies. Rather, we embrace and engage with Gâ€‘d’s world. Of course, there are clear guidelines, even rules and regulations. But within the Torah framework, we should work with the Alâ€‘mighty’s universe. “In the beginning Gâ€‘d created heaven and earth.” Earthiness, too, is part of His vast, eternal plan. That plan is that earthly beings, men and women, should invest their time, energy, wealth, and wisdom to infuse Gâ€‘dliness into the material realm.
Every mitzvah we do achieves just that. We take the physical and transform it, not by breaking it or running away from it, but by confronting it and molding it into something sacred and purposeful. “Jews have no nunneries,” goes the proverb. A yeshiva is meant to be not a monastery but a school which will teach and train our students to add spiritual value to the material world.
So the Nazirite who, in his quest for heightened spirituality, found it necessary because of his own moral weakness to distance himself from that which the Creator has permitted us is somewhat sinful after all. And his attitude does indeed require some correction, even atonement.
Judaism calls upon us to live a higher, otherworldly life within this world. Rather than allowing the emptiness of a society to bring us down, we are challenged to assertively insist on changing our society for the better. The Creator gave us the spiritual strength to engage with His world. That is why we must.
By all means drink the wine–but make sure you make Kiddush and say l’chaim. v
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.