Stepping out of Oneself
Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89 )
Bamidbar, 6:13: “This is the law of the Nazir: On the day his status as a nazir is completed, he shall bring himself (yavee oto) to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting”
In the context of the discussion of the Nazirite laws, the Torah instructs the Nazir of what to do when he has completed his period of abstinence from the laws of the Nazirite, such as not drinking wine and not cutting hair. The commentaries note the unusual expression, “he shall bring himself” (yavee oto). It would have seemed to make more sense to simple write, “he shall come”. Nobody else is bringing him, so what is the Torah alluding to when it tells him to bring himself?
The Meshech Chochmah addresses this question. He explains that the reason why a person declares himself a nazir is because he feels that his desires have overwhelmed him, and he is no longer in control of himself, thus he fears the consequences of drinking too much wine. In order to reassert control over his passions and desires, he becomes a Nazir, and voluntarily chooses to abstain from wine, so that he may again regain control of himself.
But how can the Nazir be sure that the Nazirite process has served its purpose and he is back in control of his lusts? The Meshech Chochmah answers: “When he looks at his own issues like how he looks at the actions of other people.”1 A person who is enslaved to an addiction or desire, cannot view himself in an objective fashion, and only when he can attain a level of objectivity about himself can he know that he is free from his desires.
Rabbi Yissachar Frand offers an analogy to help make this idea more tangible:
“To what can this matter be compared? Let us say you go to a restaurant or a wedding and you see a person at this restaurant or at the smorgasbord piling it on and piling it on. You see that this person is very overweight. You say to yourself, “It is no wonder that he is overweight – look at how much food he takes at this all-you-can-eat buffet. Someone can look at this person and instantly recognize that he has an eating problem, he has an appetite problem, he has some kind of problem where he is not in control. But I am looking at him that way because, obviously, he is someone else.”
Being a Nazir is a process whereby someone needs to control himself such that he can look at the person (himself) that he was prior to the start of his undertaking the nazir status, and view himself as a different person altogether. Rabbi Frand continues that this process takes place with all people who are able to free themselves of their addiction. For example, a recovering alcoholic recognizes his old self when he sees someone still suffering from the addiction: “That was me. I could not pass up a drink as soon as I would even smell an alcoholic beverage! But that is not me anymore, I have now gained control.”2
In the midst of his discussion, the Meshech Chachma mentions a Gemara3 about a Nazir. The Bei Chiyah4 builds on this idea, and uses it to explain a difficulty in the Gemara. Shimon HaTzaddik (the Righteous) was a Kohen and he relates that for his whole life he never ate the Guilt Offering of an impure nazir except one time. The Gemara elaborates: “Once a Nazir came from the South [and asked me to offer his nazir offering for him]. I asked him why he became a Nazir, and he told me that he had been a shepherd and went to draw water for his sheep from a stream. He saw his reflection in the water and upon seeing his own beauty, his evil inclination was aroused. The shepherd continued, “Amarti lo – I said to him – wicked one! Why do you boast? I swear I will cut off your hair for the Sake of Heaven.” Shimon HaTzadik said that when he heard this, he stood up and kissed him on the forehead and said, “My son, may there be many more such people in Israel who vow to take on nezirus for such noble motives!”
There is a strange aspect of the way this story is told over – the Nazir speaks of himself in the third-person – he says, “I said to him”, when it would have made more sense to say, “I said to myself”. The Bei Chiyah answers, based on the Meshech Chachma that the person saw that he was being overcome by his negative inclination and he became a different person. He was able to step out of himself and objectively see what was happening. Therefore, he refers to himself in the third person.
This idea is not limited to people with severe addictions, rather it is highly pertinent to many aspects of life. The negative inclination works to convince a person that his attempts at persuasion are for the person’s best interest. He strives to prevent the person from being able to rationally assess the situation, and instead uses the person’s passions and desires to cloud his objectivity. In order to counter this argument of the negative inclination, one needs to be able to step back and see when his negative inclination is speaking to him in place of his rational side. This is a life-long challenge, and requires a combination of Torah learning, self-accounting and Mussar (self-growth) to fully overcome. The Nazir is a person that, through his awareness of Torah, and self-awareness of his weaknesses, comes to a point where he realizes the necessity to step out of himself and see what he has become. At that point, he can begin the road to controlling his desires and using them for the good.
- Meshech Chachma, Bamidbar, 6:13.
- It is important to note that even though a cured addict is able to look at himself objectively, it is pointed out that such a person should not complacent that he could fall back into this addiction, because it is not uncommon that one slip can start a downward spiral that can bring back the old addictions.
- Nedarim, 9b.
- Also cited by Rabbi Frand.