Naso: On standing apart and resisting mainstream

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Numbers 4:21-7:89

Judges 13:2-25

An anguished king summoned his counselor: "I have read in the stars that all those who eat of the next harvest will be struck with madness."

The counselor replied: "Don't worry. Last year's harvest is not yet exhausted; it will be ample for you and me."

"And what of all of the other citizens?" scolded the king.

"We don't have enough reserves for everyone. There will be just enough for you and me."

Thereupon the king said: "I do not care to remain sane in the midst of a people gone mad. In a world gripped by insanity, it is senseless to watch from the outside, because the mad will think that we are mad anyway. Therefore, we shall all become mad together.

"However, I should like to remember what we used to be because that knowledge may help us and then, perhaps, we shall be able to help our friends.

"We shall mark each other's foreheads with the seal of madness so that every time we look at one another, we shall know that we are mad."

Nachman of Bratslav's story, "Harvest of Madness," illustrates the difficult choice of submitting to or resisting the demands of society, a problem Jews repeatedly faced.

When pressured to conform, convert or forsake their covenant with God, Jews frequently chose death rather than submission. However, there were other occasions, like the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews took the path of least resistance and gave into the demands of their tormentors.

Nachman of Bratslav's king attempted to walk the fine line between resistance and submission, just as many Jews over the centuries thought they could maintain their Jewish existence in two different worlds. Today, many Jews think that they can accomplish the very same thing; the grim statistics indicate that they are mistaken.

Such tension is enacted in this week's Torah portion, Naso. It deals with the Nazarite, an unconventional individual like Samuel and Samson who participated in unusual rituals that provided special status and kept him apart from the larger society. The Nazarite was to consume no alcohol, refrain from cutting his hair and have no contact with the dead. Nazarite appearance was considered a sign of holiness.

The Nazarite tradition of not submitting to the conventions of the majority finds voice in Jewish ethical writings, best exemplified in two clear statements:

* "Do not follow after the multitude to do evil" (Exodus 23:2).

* In a place in which there are no human beings, strive to be one" (Pirke Avot 2.5).

The message of these powerful declarations is evident in the following story:

Long ago, some young men gathered to forget their problems by worshipping their god of heedless pleasure, Dionysius, and by drinking a brew they called "Revel and Forget."

One young man would not drink. "It is an evil brew," he said. "If I forget the past, I have no future."

They laughed. "You are a coward. You long in your heart to try our brew, and you deny your passion."

"Perhaps," said the young man. "It is written somewhere in my father's books, `Who is a hero? He who denies his passions.' I have no wish to be a hero. I am only a young man, perplexed like you."

All night long they drank and taunted the prince; all night long he stood his ground. Finally, in the morning, as they slept, snoring on the floor, the young man looked around and shook his head.

"Where," he asked, "are all the virile young men? They are lost in another world. They have forgotten they are men."

At that moment, the innkeeper roused himself and called out: "Young man, how have you saved yourself from this company of beasts?"

The prince gazed at the inebriated young men and answered: "I remembered something else, a commandment in my father's books: `Thou shalt not rise to the challenge of fools.'"

The remembrance of the Nazarite serves as a reminder of the Jewish experience that cherishing long-held beliefs and not being swallowed up into the rule of the majority has great benefit for individuals who feel pressured to join in the activities of a world that seems insane. It is a sobering lesson for young and old alike.