Negotiating the path between austerity and hedonism


Numbers 4:21-7:89

Judges 13:2-25

When the rabbi's son received his driving permit, his father said, "I'll make a deal with you. You bring your grades up, study the Bible and get your hair cut — and then we will talk about car privileges."

A month later, the boy reported on his progress. His father said, "I am proud of you. You have brought your grades up, you've studied the Bible diligently, but you didn't get your hair cut!"

His son paused for a moment and replied, "You know, Dad, in studying the Bible I realized that Abraham, Moses, and Samson all had long hair. So why do I need to get my hair cut?"

"You are right," the father interrupted. "They all had long hair. But remember, they also walked everywhere they went."

Long hair has a variety of meanings in different societies. For example, in Naso, this week's Torah portion, Numbers 6:5 offers a puzzling injunction about Nazarite membership in an informal holy order:

"Throughout the term of his vow as a Nazarite, no razor shall touch his head…the hair of his head being left to grow untrimmed." When finally cut, the Nazarite's hair was offered as a sacrifice. In addition to the prohibition forbidding haircuts, the Nazarite was to consume no alcohol and have no contact with the dead. The most famous Nazarites were Samuel and Samson, whose unusual strength was destroyed when Delilah sheared off his curly locks (I Samuel 1:11, Judges 13-16).

Simon the Just, a Second Temple high priest, had little appreciation for the Nazarite vow because he felt that abstention, particularly from wine, was aberrant, extreme behavior. He reported that only once had he met an authentic Nazarite whose (guilt) offering he accepted, an extraordinarily handsome young shepherd with long, beautiful, curly locks of hair.

Simon was puzzled about why the young man would destroy such magnificent hair. The lad said that when he went to the well to draw water, he gazed at his reflection and was so mesmerized by his own face that he worried that his image evoked inappropriate thoughts of the pleasures such beauty would guarantee. Realizing that he could easily fall into the hedonistic trap of self-love, he fulfilled the Nazarite vow that required him to shear off his hair. In response to his earnestness, Simon kissed him on his head saying, "My son, may there be many Nazarites like you in Israel!"

The parallels of this vignette to the Greek myth of Narcissus are striking. But while the Greek myth teaches that self-love often ends in unavoidable disaster, the Bible urges mastery over such proclivity through a vow of dedication and piety. The Nazarite cast his vote for asceticism, whereas Narcissus favored hedonistic pleasures.

A fascinating story of an ascetic highlights the struggle between self-absorption and selflessness, raising the question of whether there can be a happy medium between asceticism and the pursuit of pleasure. In discussing Roman decadence with Shimon bar Yohai, Rabbi Judah observed, "How noble are the works of this [Roman] nation! They laid out streets, they built bridges, and they erected baths."

Shimon denigrated the observation with these words, "All that they made, they made to serve themselves: They laid out streets to settle harlots in them; baths, to pamper themselves; bridges, to levy tolls." When the Romans learned of Shimon's comments, they issued a death warrant for him, but Shimon escaped their dragnet and lived in a cave for 12 years, surviving on carob and water.

When Shimon emerged from hiding, he saw people living normal existences plowing and planting and, to Shimon's dismay, not concerned with Roman oppression. The Talmud reports that his anger was kindled against the populace and he incinerated anything or anyone that he gazed at. With that, a divine voice exclaimed, "Have you come out to destroy my world? Go back to your cave" (Shabbat 33b-34a; Genesis Rabbah 79.6).

This rabbinic text suggests that extremism, whether in the form of self-love or anger, is not a welcomed feature of a reasoned life. The contrast between Shimon's strident conduct and that of the people who infuriated him suggests that a compromise may be the best route to a satisfying life. Walking the fine line between the extremes of austere self-denial and hedonistic self-indulgence results in a fulfilled life that recognizes the tension between spiritual and temporal matters. It is an important message in our age of polarization.