Friday, May 25, 2018

Parashat Naso: To Have or To Be?

To Have or To Be?
A Message for Parashat Naso 2018
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In their careful reading of the disparate passages in Parshat Naso, the Hakhamim gave reason to the juxtaposition of the laws of nazir and sotah: “To tell you that anyone who sees a sotah in her state of disgrace will take upon himself to abstain from wine, for wine leads to adultery.”[1] They explained that by noticing the lowly state of the wayward woman accused of adultery one will naturally accept the precautionary measures of the life of a nazir.

The status of the nazir’s state of being, however, is no simple matter. On the one hand, the nazir is called “holy to God” (Bemidbar 6:8), while on the other he is required to bring a sin offering when he concludes the period of his vow (6:13-14). Indeed, the Talmud records conflicting opinions regarding this matter, and R. Elazar HaKapar maintains that his decision to abstain from wine represents his sin.[2] Surprisingly, even when the nazir’s vow to ascetism is only temporarily accepted in order to prevent future sin, it is nonetheless deemed negative. Why?

I believe that the answer lays hidden in the parashah’s next segment, birkat kohanim. In three separate sentences, God first commanded the kohanim to bless the people regarding a relationship with Him. He then concluded: “They shall place My name upon Bnei Yisrael and I shall bless them” (6:27). What does it mean to “carry God’s name”?

The great psychoanalyst Erich Fromm distinguished between two modes of existence: to have and to be. A person who strives to have is concerned with material possessions, physical pleasure, power and aggression. Their measures of success are what and how much they have attained. One who lives to be, in contrast, seeks an inner satisfaction and general harmony. Their existence is based upon love, the pleasure of sharing and productive activity.[3]

The sotah wants to have. She submits to the urges that pull her to the allure of adultery. Realizing her damned ending, the nazir seeks an alternate route. By prohibiting himself from shaving his hair, drinking wine, and coming in contact with the dead, the nazir seeks to not have. Although he shares a perspective on life with sotah, as they both peer through the prism of “to have or not to have,” he nonetheless builds a protective wall of “not having” with restrictions. Lacking an alternative mindset, however, the nazir’s plan is criticized by the Torah and the Hakhamim.

“Carrying God’s name,” afterwards mentioned by the Kohanim, means living a life of essence. It is an existence that is driven by the will to be. Its goal is quality instead of quantity. This mission contrasts the “lives of having” of the nazir and sotah, by instead viewing our lives as the experience of being the bearers of God’s name.

The nazir’s fear of death might in fact stem from his focus on having. Erich Fromm noted that when we say, “This person has a future,” we refer to what he or she might attain in the future even though they haven’t in the present. Seen through this prism, the “present” is the point where past and future join, but not different in quality from those two realms that it connects. Living to be, however, transcends time. Painting and writing, for example, are conceived in a creative event outside of time. The experiences of loving, joy and grasping truth similarly transpire in the timeless present, which is enmeshed with both the past and the future. Living to be, then, dispels the tensions and fears of our future.[4]

By delicately stitching the passages regarding the sotah, nazir and birkat kohanim to each other, Parashat Naso contrasts the mistaken life of having to the ideal one of being.

[1] Bemidbar Rabah10:2-4. Cited by Rashi to 6:2 s.v. yafli.
[2] Nazir 19a. Cited by Rashi to 6:11 s.v me-asher.
[3] Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be? (London, UK, 1997).
[4] See Fromm, pg. 109-11.