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The Good Fence

Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89 )

by Rabbi Menachem Weiman

Two odd themes are juxtaposed in the Book of Numbers, chapters 5 and 6: the Nazir and the Sotah.

A Nazir is a person who takes a special vow of abstinence that includes not consuming wine, grape juice, or anything associated with grapes. The Nazir brings an offering at the end of his period of abstinence and shaves his head.

A Sotah is a woman who was warned by her husband not to seclude herself with a specific man, and was then seen doing that which she was warned not to. She is brought to the Temple, and if she claims innocence, drinks special water and undergoes an stressful ritual to prove her innocence.

Although the facts and details of these biblical events are beyond the realm of modern man, the essence of each touches on an essential aspect of life, and is as relevant now as ever. In a nutshell: How do we prevent ourselves from doing what we know is wrong?

The Sotah, suspected of committing adultery, is given the chance to clear her name through a ceremony in the Holy Temple. The Nazir voluntarily accepts a period of asceticism, usually a month.

The former has gone beyond the boundaries of decency; the latter is making artificial boundaries beyond what is required.

Even if the Sotah isn't guilty of adultery, she is still guilty of acting indecently in a way that caused serious suspicion. The Nazir is seemingly pure and holy. Yet both equally bring an offering associated with transgression - the Chatat sin-offering. Why, the Talmud asks, does the Nazir bring such an offering? Not only didn't he do anything wrong, but he seems to be going beyond the call of duty by taking a temporary vow of abstinence.

The Talmud answers that the Nazir, in abstaining from permissible pleasures, is backing off from the Almighty's beautiful world.

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Why is the Nazir driven to take a vow of abstinence? Because he felt close to doing a transgression. When our eyes are opened, which happens every once in a while, and we see our own "yetzer hara" (inclination to cause ourselves spiritual harm), we have a "window of opportunity" to do something about it. After that, we'll go back to status quo, not recognizing our own flaws. We are overcome with a moment of temporary sanity. If you don't take advantage of it, you lose it.

Rabbi Tzaddok HaKohen (Poland, 1823-1900) says that the nation of Israel was taken out of Egypt in a big rush in order to teach us that sometimes we need to jump on a spiritual opportunity. Even in a case where that opportunity involves something negative, like the Nazir's abstinence which God frowns upon, it's worth it if he can overcome a negative character trait.

The Sotah is a reminder that sometimes - like acts of adultery - people act badly on impulse. In order to protect ourselves from impulse, we need to make sure we're not in an environment that encourages those impulses. We need to think about our own personal fences that sometimes need to be built.

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Two books on character development are viewed as Jewish classics: Duties of the Heart (11th century work by Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakuda, originally written in Arabic), and Path of the Just (written in 1740 by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto). These books consider abstinence a legitimate stepping stone in spiritual growth. Of course, as a way of life it is going against God's will, but as a means to conquer an inner desire, it is praiseworthy. It's hard to live in the world, be married, have children, have a job, and be spiritual. It's easy to be spiritual if you leave society for the forest and commune with nature and meditation.

Our world was created this way for a reason. We are supposed to deal with the universe the way God created it. But sometimes we need to get away from it all, find a place and time to be alone, to get centered and balanced, and remind ourselves of our true purpose.

And afterwards, we must return to the challenges of life.

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The Nazir symbolizes fences because although the main abstinence is from wine, the prohibitions he accepts include grapes, raisins, vinegar, grape seeds and anything remotely connected to wine. These fences help the Nazir ensure that he doesn't go anywhere near wine, the true object of his abstinence.

In the beginning of the Talmudic tractate Pirkei Avot, the first statement of moral instruction includes the advice to set fences for yourself. We all need boundaries. And if you spend time getting to know yourself, some of those fences will be pretty clear where you should put them.

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Spiritual Exercise:

Make a short list of a few things you commonly do that you know are wrong. Think of some optional fences you might put up permanently or temporarily - to protect you from your own yetzer hara.

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