Parshat Naso

Bamidbar 6:7-8
Samson slayed 1000 men…since hair set apart [crown] for his God is upon his head: throughout his term as nazirite he is consecrated [holy] to his LORD.

Bamidbar 6:13-14
This is the ritual for the nazirite: On the day that his term as nazirite is completed, he shall be brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. As his offering to the LORD, [one] for a burnt offering … [the other] for a sin offering… Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler notes a seeming contradiction in how the Nazir is described in the rabbinic literature, he is both holy and a sinner due to abstaining from wine. This is derived from the Torah verses above.

Bamidbar Rabbah 10:11 (as cited by Rabbi Dessler)
Everyone who sanctifies himself here below is sanctified from above. This person who denied himself wine and endured discomfort of refraining from cutting his hair in order to guard himself against sin is considered by God to resemble the High Priest. Why is enduring discomfort praiseworthy — making one resemble the High Priest? Do you see the High Priest as experiencing discomfort? What does sanctification mean?

Nazir 19a
As it is taught in a baraita: Rabbi Elazar HaKappar, the esteemed one, says: What is the meaning when the verse states with regard to a nazirite: “And make atonement for him, for he sinned by the soul’ (Numbers 6:11). And with which soul did this person sin by becoming a nazirite? Rather, in afflicting himself by abstaining from wine, he is considered to have
sinned with his own soul, and he must bring a sin-offering for the naziriteship itself for causing his body to suffer.
What is your understanding of Judaism’s perspective on ascetism and abstention? After reading these texts, what are your thoughts?

Rabbi Dessler cites several more texts describing voluntary fasting as both meritorious and a sin. As you might expect in a rabbinic analysis, Rabbi Dessler will argue that there is no contradiction, abstention is both meritorious and a sin depending on the circumstances.

Rabbi Dessler
The solution is that there are two levels in this matter. A person may feel that he is in danger of being swept away by physical desires. In this case , he should minimize his physical pleasures as much as possible. … All the statements praising abstention apply to this level.

The ideal, however, is that when a person has put physical desire behind him, he should still make a point of tasting the pleasures of this world to some extent. This is so he can bless God with deep gratitude for the pleasure he has enjoyed. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi writes in The Kuzari that the higher a person’s spiritual madrega [level of spiritual existence or awareness], the more pleasure he gets from eating. The reason for this is that higher his madrega, the more he appreciates the food as a gift from God, which he expresses in his blessings.

Do you agree with Rabbi Dessler’s resolution of the contradiction? Are there alternative explanations?

When someone abuses alcohol, is it for pleasure? What are some reasons why a person may over-drink or over-eat? What affect does doing activities to excess have on one’s intellect, emotions, and body? To other people? How might it affect a person’s relationship to God?

Can you pray to excess?

How do you balance being swept away by physical desires versus taking pleasure as a sign of appreciation to God? How do you tell the difference? What middot might come into play to attain an appropriate balance?