The Dilemma of the Blanket
Have you ever laid yourself to sleep with a short blanket? You cover your toes, but your shoulders are cold. You pull up the blanket to cover your shoulders, but now your toes are exposed. Your sleep is restless and fitful. What do you do? Finally, you discover that your blanket was folded in half. You unfold the blanket and sink into a comfortable sleep.
The subject I am about to address is somewhat like the short blanket scenario. Our sages make a statement designed to answer a question, but the statement triggers a new question. Answering the new question reopens the original question, and answering that one exposes a new one. Let us see if we can find our way out of this maze.
The Nazir’s Sacrifice
The Torah tells us about the nazir’s vow. The nazir is a person who vows to abstain from wine, and live an otherwise ascetic lifestyle, for a minimum of 30 days. When the period of abstention has ended, the nazir must offer a sacrifice before drinking wine again. What is the reason for this sacrifice? Has the nazir done anything wrong?
It is not appropriate to be more religious than G-d. Our sages explained that the sacrifice atones for the sin of abstaining from G-d’s bounty. It is not appropriate to be more religious than G-d. If G-d considered wine safe and permissible, the nazir should not have vowed to abstain. The vow implies that G-d was wrong, and that wine is harmful. Casting aspersions on G-d’s bounty is a sin that requires atonement. Hence the sacrifice.
But if it is wrong to take the nazir’s vow, why doesn’t the Torah forbid it in the first place, and declare it null? Why introduce the possibility, recognize it as a legitimate vow, and then declare it inappropriate? In other words, our answer might have pulled the blanket up to cover the shoulders, but it has exposed the toes.
Return to the Golden Mean
To answer this we turn to Maimonides, who championed the golden mean. Don’t be overly tolerant, but also not short-tempered; don’t be overly miserly, but also not too generous; don’t be overly serious, but also not too carefree. Always opt for the middle of the road.
Speaking of human predilections, however, Maimonides declared that once we indulge in an extreme, the solution is to turn to the opposite extreme for a while, till our system has been detoxified. For example, one prone to anger should practice extreme tolerance, and one prone to procrastination should practice extreme discipline. We continue on this extreme path till we have regained our balance, and only then do we return to the middle path.
This is the context of the nazir’s vow. Wine is a metaphor for all worldly pleasures. When we become addicted to a particular indulgence, we must wean ourselves from the addiction by abstaining completely until we have recovered. The vow serves to reinforce the discipline that is required for such abstinence.
We now understand why the Torah permits, and even endorses, the nazir’s vow. The endorsement displays G-d’s immense sensitivity to, and understanding of, human nature. But we are still left with our original question: If the vow is appropriate under the circumstances, why is it sinful? Why does it necessitate a sacrifice? We have covered our toes, but our shoulders are now exposed.
One can argue that the sacrifice is designed not to atone for abstaining from wine, but to seek forgiveness for the indulgence that made such a vow necessary in the first place. Wine, like all of G-d’s bounty, is good only in moderation. To consume too much is to demonstrate a lack of self-control.
Worse, it demonstrates a lack of situational awareness. G-d placed us in His world so that we could serve Him. We ought to partake of His bounty in accordance with our needs, in order to gather the energy to serve Him. When we overindulge, we choose our own interests over G-d’s. Rather than use the wine as G-d intended it, we misuse it. Such indulgence occurs when we forget the purpose for which we were created. It casts off the yoke of divine service, and for that we require atonement.
This answers all our former questions, but it gives rise to a new one. If the indulgence was inappropriate, we should have asked for forgiveness right away. Why do we put off the sacrifice until after we have made and fulfilled the vow? Does this not imply a lack of sincerity?
The discerning reader will immediately grasp that we cannot worry about the sin while we are still suffering from its aftermath. The nazir, before the vow, is an addict, and addiction is an illness that requires treatment. When we are bound by physical addiction, we cannot cure our spiritual ailments.
It is not healthy to retain a victim mentality for long. That addicts are the perpetrators of their own addictions is true, but it must be remembered that they are also its victims. What they need first and foremost is to recover, not to be lectured. This is why the first instruction the Torah offers is that they take a vow of abstention. They must join a community of recovering addicts, and give themselves time to heal.
Once the illness passes, however, and the addiction is reduced to manageable proportions, we must turn our attention to the cause of the problem. Now is the appropriate time to dwell on the choices that sank them into self-absorption, oblivion, and worst of all, imprisonment. Once they acknowledge their part in the making of their problem, they will want to repent. This is the appropriate time to bring an offering to G-d and to beg His forgiveness.
Both sides of this equation are empowering. If we demand too much up front, the addict might despair of ever recovering. We first give him time to recover, acknowledge the truth of his victimhood, and thereby empower him to embark on the road to recovery.
But it is not healthy to retain a victim mentality for long. To maintain a victim mentality is to set ourselves on the path of continued failure. At some point, we must take ownership of our problems.
The Torah teaches us how to claw our way out of that bottomless pit: by acknowledging our weakness, taking responsibility for our sins and appealing to G-d for forgiveness. G-d does forgive, and He also offers assistance.
And when He does, the road to continued wellness opens before us. For even the most difficult road is easy to travel with G-d at our side.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario. He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his wrtings, visit InnerStream.ca. This d’var Torah courtesy of Chabad.org.