Torah speaks to the challenges of reentry

RABBI NOAH ARNOW

It’s been more than a year since I began reading the Torah through COVID-colored glasses. Or perhaps more aptly, I’ve been reading Torah this year through a mask. Familiar stories and concepts in the Torah read differently from home, on Zoom, streaming, through a mask. Of late, I’ve been noticing moments in the Torah of reentry, and the accompanying complexities. 

One such reentry, about which we read this week, is the Nazirite of Numbers 6, who for a period of time abstains from wine and grape products, cutting hair and having contact with human corpses. At the end of their vow, if they have successfully completed it, they are brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and make offerings, including a well-being offering, but also, a sin offering. 

A well-being offering makes sense; it’s expressing gratitude and joy. The first time I spend time with people unmasked and  unguarded, I, too, will be grateful and joyous. 

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But why do they also offer a sin offering? What sin has the successful Nazirite committed? 

Rabbi Noah Arnow serves Kol Rinah and is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association.

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926) says the extra stringency of this period has prevented the Nazirite from fulfilling certain positive commandments, such as drinking wine or grape juice for Kiddush and Havdalah, or attending to the burial of the dead. This kind of abstinence is not perfectly holy. The Nazirite’s ability to fully experience joy, through wine or grape juice, has been limited. Their ability to care for their family and be present at important moments has been compromised. And they haven’t gotten a haircut in weeks or months, ignoring their own grooming and appearance. 

This is us. Yes, for the Nazirite and for us, our isolation had a larger purpose and reason. But it came at a cost, which this sin offering recognizes. 

One way of explaining this is by looking backward, but we can also look into the future. The offering is not for what the Nazirite has done, but rather for what they are about to do, suggests Ramban (Spain, 1194-1270). Having lived a life of separateness and holiness, being very careful about food and drink and contact with people (sound familiar?), the Nazirite is about to reenter regular life in the messy world, and will inevitably become less pure than they had been. 

I’ve never been more careful about catching communicable diseases than I have been for the last 14 months, and I haven’t been sick. If healthy is holy, I’ve been very holy. 

In another sense, too, has this time been “pure.” Because we haven’t been casually hanging out with friends like we used to, I’ve noticed that there’s less gossip and talking about people than there used to be. I have no doubt it will return. I understand the sense of loss of purity that reentry entails and the acknowledgement of impending sin. 

Finally, I’ll note one oddity in the way this whole commandment is phrased. The Nazirite is supposed to either “be brought” or “bring themselves” (depending on how we translate) to offer these sacrifices. This phrase is superfluous. But I understand it, now. The Nazirite may need to be urged, coaxed or even dragged out of their holy isolation. Some of us, too, will require bringing out, whether by someone else or just by getting ourselves over the hump to go out again. 

There was no national or local schedule of when Nazirite vows would end. They were all individual. For us, too, we will come out at different times, at different paces, in different places. 

May we reenter with joy and trepidation, sadness and anticipation, for all that we have gained and lost, and for all the living ahead of us.