In a letter to me on my 18th birthday, my father wrote: “Much of who you are is sealed in genetics, you are who you are because of the DNA that went into making you. But, you are also who you are because of the choices you have made and will make. Make wise choices that reflect the best in you and those around you.” These words often echo in my head as I look at the choices I’ve made and continue to make in my life. The fact is we are predisposed to certain traits because of the inner make up of our bodies, but we also make choices along the path of our adventure through life. Some things, like height or genetic predisposition for diseases, cannot be changed, while other aspects of our lives, like a career or how we interact with others, are conscious decisions.
As the Israelites inch closer to entering the land of Israel and the new society they have formed, the Torah gives us insight into both the predetermined status and the choices of individuals in that society. In parshat Naso, this week’s parshah, we read about the special designations for each of the different tribes. We also learn about a system of punishments for a suspected liar and various gifts brought by the heads of the cities in honor of the dedication of the Tabernacle. But the primary focus of this text is on the specific roles that people play in society, namely the kohanim (priests) and the Nazirites.
The priest has a status inherited at birth based on the family line. Because it’s passed down by blood, the role of the kohanim is considered an immutable characteristic of these people, and only in special circumstances are exemptions allowed. For example, a priest is normally not allowed to be near a dead body, but is exempt from this rule for parents because the status is inherited from them.
On the other hand, the Nazirite is a self-chosen status, but full of its own prohibitions in behaviors such as cutting hair, drinking wine, or approaching a dead body. According to the text this week, Nazirites may choose their position like they would an occupation, and because of this, even when it is their own family member who has died, they are unable to attend the burial proceedings because that restriction was self-imposed as part of the Nazirite designation.
The rabbis read these sections with compassion and concern. After all, it is never easy to have to remind someone that their own choices have prohibited them from involvement in the world around them. More telling, however, is that the rabbis viewed the choice to become a Nazirite, one who is hidden and separated from general society, as a choice to turn their attention more toward God instead of to others. In fact, the Hebrew word nazircan mean both “consecrated” and “separated.”
It’s not difficult to see the advantages of either position. For kohanim, acceptance of the rules comes without choice, which in a sense makes abiding by them easier, or at least clearer. However, being a Nazirite is not an innate part of who someone is, so having that option implies more freedom, but choosing that path ultimately segregates a person from the community.
As modern Jews, we really must have a sense of both aspects – the inherent and the selected – to be fully connected to our religion. That means we need to feel that Judaism is part of our makeup, either by birth or conversion, and we need to make Judaism a conscious choice every day in our thoughts and actions.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: Did you know that the Nazirite tradition had significant influence on the Rastafari movement? Their interpretation of the nazarite vow includes the familiar prohibitions against cutting hair and drinking alcohol as well as dietary restrictions that resemble kashrut.