Judaism teaches about moderation. While many other traditions suggest you steer clear of worldly pleasures, and some others may allow complete gluttony, Judaism wants us to walk in the middle. This week’s Torah portion teaches the laws of the nazirite, someone who chooses to abstain from drinking wine, who does not cut their hair, and who has taken upon themselves to seek higher spirituality and holiness. Although the Torah does not give a suggested length of time for the nazirite to observe this state of heightened holiness, it does mention “the length of their naziriteship,” and gives the protocol for officially concluding that period, implying that even the Jews that do observe asceticism should only do so for short periods of time. In our Haftarah this week, the birth of Samson, a life-long nazirite, is foretold. By living in relative austerity for his whole life he was granted a special relationship with G-d and importance for the Jewish people, but it also opened him up to a much greater downfall when his nazirite hair is so unceremoniously chopped off.
The Torah portion and much its commentary speaks specifically of wine, its potential to lead to harmfulness and reasoning for the nazirite swearing off it, as well as acknowledging that it is a part of the great world that G-d has given us and suggesting the nazirite’s abstinence is a sign of ingratitude. A Chasidic story from Reshimat Devarim illustrates the double nature of wine: “Once, in the early days of Chassidism, a learned Jew happened upon a Chassidic gathering. Taking in the sight of half-empty vodka bottles on the table, of Jews singing and dancing instead of studying Torah, he cried: "Jews! The Holy Temple is in ruins, Israel is in exile, and you dance and drink?!" Present at the party was Rabbi Dovid Ferkus, a senior disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism. "I have a question for you," said Rabbi Dovid to the visitor. "In one place, Rashi writes that a nazir's vow to abstain from wine is an appropriate reaction for one who witnesses human weakness to give in to bad habits. But only a few verses later, Rashi quotes the Talmudic opinion which regards the nazir's abstinence as a sin. Which is it? Is drinking wine a positive or a negative thing to do? I’ll tell you the difference between the two cases," continued Rabbi Dovid. "The first statement by Rashi is addressed to one who 'sees an adulteress’s ruin.' A person who is capable of seeing the negative in a fellow Jew, had better not drink wine. Wine will agitate his heart, and he'll probably be roused to discover more failings and deficiencies in his fellows. But someone who is blessed with the ability to see only the good in his fellow, for him to avoid getting together with other Jews for a lechaim! is sinful. An infusion of wine into his heart will stimulate it to uncover the hidden good in the hearts of his fellows."”
The same goes for other worldly pleasures and their purposes. To never watch TV or movies or play games and to spend all your free time only in academic pursuits, may cause you to burn yourself out. A little time to zone out and just be passively entertained is OK. But of course, to watch too much TV and play too many video games will rot your brains. The more studious and hardworking you are, the more you may have earned your down time, just as the Chassidic man with only joy and love for his fellow in his heart is more inclined to handle his wine better. If you are not naturally inclined to study or work hard, you might need more limits on the things that will further distract you, just as the negative man should steer clear of wine. A healthy, productive life is all about the balance of these things, and each of us has to find our own sense of balance. Despite all being equal and made in the image of G-d, we are each made with our own individual needs and inclinations and must work to find the balance that works for each of us. May you each find your own balance, a healthy, productive life, filled with the appropriate limits to fun and relaxation! Amen and Shabbat Shalom!