Parshas Nasso (5773)
In this week’s Torah portion we find the laws of the Nazirite - that is, a person who accepts upon himself a vow of nezirus, whereby he pledges to adopt a state of holiness and to practice abstinence from worldly pleasures for a certain period of time. When introducing these laws, the Torah states: “A man or woman who yaf-lee – shall separate himself – by taking a Nazirite vow of abstinence for the sake of G-d ….” (Numbers 6:2).
The great medieval commentator Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra offers an alternate translation for the Hebrew word yaf-lee, based on its relation to the root word peleh (wonder). He writes that yaf-lee means “he shall do something astounding and wondrous”, with the Torah’s intent being that anyone who can separate himself from a pleasure or practice that the entire world finds enticing is truly wondrous and amazing.
Now this might not sound so “wondrous” to most people, but that’s only because we are all so conditioned to follow whatever most people are doing, and the ability to “do your own thing” and to take an unpopular stand on a given issue is relatively rare. As Ortega y Gasset once put it, the majority of people "march through life together, along the collective path, shoulder to shoulder, wool rubbing wool, and head down". The truth is, though, that for us to grow spiritually in life and to achieve greatness as Jews this attribute is crucial.
The very first law in the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law that Jews have been following and living by for centuries) states: “One should not be embarrassed and ashamed [to do the right thing] in front of those who scoff and poke fun at him”. If we want to grow and become who we need to be – then we need to realize that we were not put here on G-d’s earth to placate and follow everyone around us – but to serve G-d and do what is right in His eyes – no matter what people might say or do.
A beautiful illustration of this key principle – and one of my favorite Torah insights of all time - can be found in a story in the Book of Samuel II Chapter 6, where we find King David dancing and (literally) jumping for joy in his great excitement over the return of the captured Holy Ark to Jerusalem.
When the King returns to the palace, his wife Queen Michal, daughter of the previous King Saul, who had witnessed the entire scene, takes him to task and criticizes him for the way he danced like crazy in front of the returning Ark. She says to him, “How honored was the king of Israel today, who was exposed today in the presence of his servants’ maidservants, as one of the boors would be exposed!” To which King David responds, “In the presence of G-d - Who chose me over your father and over his entire house to appoint me as ruler over the people of G-d, over Israel – before G-d I shall rejoice! And I shall behave even more humbly than this, and I shall be lowly in my eyes; and among the maidservants of whom you spoke – among them I will be honored!”
What King David was basically saying to Queen Michal is that when it comes to showing honor in front of G-d all are equal – be it the king or a “lowly” maidservant – and therefore there is nothing degrading about the King of Israel dancing wildly in front of G-d’s Holy Ark in the presence of all the common folk.
The Malbi”m (famous 19th-century Bible commentator) asks that if David’s main response to his wife’s scathing critique was that even a king should act humbly in front of G-d, why did he feel the need to add the hurtful words “[G-d] … Who chose me over your father and over his entire house to appoint me as ruler over the people of G-d”. Why was it necessary to remind Queen Michal at this time of the fact that he [King David] was chosen by G-d to replace her father King Saul as King of Israel? Couldn’t David have been more sensitive to his wife’s feelings even as he responded to her rebuke?
The answer the Malbi”m gives is brilliant and talks to the very nature of what it means to be a Jew. He explains that it was never David’s intention to insult his wife, G-d forbid. Rather, he was teaching her a powerful lesson about doing the right thing – even when it’s not what the people want. He was reminding her – with his carefully chosen words - that whereas her father King Saul’s appointment as king had been initiated by the people, he [King David] was chosen to rule by G-d Himself. And the difference is that when you are appointed by the people, you constantly need to appeal to your constituency and to conform to their expectations and standards. And if they feel that it’s degrading for their king to be dancing exuberantly before G-d in the presence of the maidservants, then he shouldn’t be doing it. But when you are chosen by G-d (as King David was), your primary interest must be to appeal to the only Constituent that really matters – the One who elected you as king. And in front of the King of all Kings, even human kings can be humble and dance with everyone else to show honor to G-d’s Holy Ark.
Wow! What a powerful lesson in how to live our lives! You see, according to Jewish tradition, each and every one of us was “elected” by G-d Himself to our “position” as king and spiritual leader – as it says in Exodus 19:6, “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of ministers”, and in the Talmud in Shabbos 67a, “All of Israel are the sons of Kings” – and it is our job as “king” to model G-dliness and morality to the world through the way we lead our lives and to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6).
And, as King David taught us, we must always remember who elected us into our present “job”, and to make sure to do – first and foremost - what our “Boss” wants us to do, i.e. the right thing, before worrying about what everyone else – who did not elect us – thinks we should or shouldn’t be doing.
A case in point: When our family moved to Atlanta in 1998, we lived in a very non-Jewish suburb in the northern part of the city which had a lovely shul and Jewish community but was primarily populated by friendly Southern Baptists. When I first walked in to the local supermarket, I felt a bit out of place having grown up in a real frum (observant) Jewish neighborhood in New York City where everyone dressed Jewish, and now finding myself being one of the only people in the store wearing a kippah on my head.
But then I remembered King David’s words to Michal and I realized that all those Southern Baptists staring at me (or so I thought) as I walked through the aisles – did not “elect” me into my present role as Jew, and I therefore had no need to “appeal” to them and to “fit in” and conform to their standards. I had only to worry about what G-d thinks and about doing the right thing in His eyes- and He wants me to wear a kippah!
May G-d bless us with the strength of the Nazirite and the fortitude of King David – and may we find the courage to always do the right thing ... no matter what.