Growing up at West London Synagogue one of the songs which was very popular in my youth was about five constipated men in the Bible. The song began with Cain, who was not able; he was followed by Moses, who took two tablets, then Bilaam, who couldn’t shift his ass, Samson who brought the house down and Solomon who sat for forty years. Each verse played with an element of that character’s story to imply a trouble with bowel function. Like many young boys at the time I was most fascinated with the character of Samson. With his flowing hair and superhuman strength, he was the Bible’s answer to He-Man (sorry if that reference dates me), and I was intrigued by this Biblical superhero.
It was only later in life that I began to realise that this man was actually a far more complex character than I had ever imagined. Samson turned out to be a far more flawed character than I had ever realised as a child. What I also learnt was that Samson is often considered to be the Bible’s most famous example of a Nazirite (even if he was not particularly good at adhering to the laws which accompanied that status).
In this week’s Torah portion the laws for the Nazirite are given by God to Moses. This person utters a vow to become a Nazirite (something that Samson never did) and are then committed that, ‘they shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant’ (Numbers 6:3), ‘no razor shall touch their head’ (Numbers 6:5) and ‘they shall not go in where there is a dead person’ (Numbers 6:6). These three obligations form the bulk of what it meant to be a Nazarite, and were observed for a fixed period of time.
At the end of a person’s time as a Nazarite (they would specify the time when making the vow) a number of sacrifices were required. ‘The priest shall present them before the Eternal and offer the sin offering and the burnt offering’ (Numbers 6:16). While one may expect sacrifices of celebration and praise of God, it is striking that amidst the Nazarites sacrifices was a sin offering. This requirement makes it clear that the Nazirite way of life was not required, or possibly even desired, by God, and so needed an offering of atonement at the end of the period.
For us the presence of the sin offering may serve as a reminder that Judaism is not a religion which expects its adherents to ‘afflict’ themselves or live in a monastic way to serve God. Instead Judaism is a religion which wants us to celebrate life and to enjoy life to the fullest. We do not need to follow the excesses of Samson, but we need to find a way to enjoy living our lives. The Nazirite sacrificed his or her full enjoyment of life for a set period of time, and was required to atone for this sin.
We no longer have the Priestly system to make the Nazirite vow, but we can ensure that we live our lives in such a way so as not to require a sin offering at their conclusion.