The Freedom of Torah
The Torah portion discusses the mitzvah of 'Nezirus', whereby a person takes a vow to abstain from wine, avoid coming into contact with a dead body, and to let his hair grow.(1) The author of Toras Avraham, Rav Avraham Grodzinki,(2) discusses a number of difficulties with regard to the spiritual standing of the Nazir. He notes that at one point the Torah describes him as 'holy' for depriving himself of physical pleasure.(3) However, soon after, in the process of describing the sacrifices that he brings, it tells us that he must bring a sin-offering to atone for a certain sin that he has committed. What is that sin? Rashi brings the opinion of Rebbe Elazar Hakappa that his sin was that he caused himself pain by depriving himself of the enjoyment of drinking wine.(4) Thus there is a blatant contradiction as to whether the Nazir is doing a great mitzah or is in fact committing an sin.
The Toras Avraham answers that the Nazir is doing the right thing - he is someone who feels an unhealthy tendency towards physical pleasure, and therefore deems it necessary to make the drastic step of taking a vow of Nezirus. However, there is an element of sin in this action that requires atonement. The Toras Avraham continues that God created man with a body and soul and that it is wrong for man to totally neglect his body. Man's job in this world is to live in the physical world but to elevate it. The Nazir feels that he cannot do this without totally abstaining from wine. He is correct for acting this way, but in doing so, he causes his body considerable discomfort because it has a certain level of attachment to the physical world and feels pain at being deprived of the pleasures that the physical world has to offer. Consequently, he is considered 'holy' for undertaking such a bold process of purification, but simultaneously needs to bring a sin offering for causing pain to his body.(5)
Having explained the duality in the act of Nezirus, the Toras Avraham then poses a new problem. He brings the Ramban at the beginning of the Torah portion, Kedoshim, who writes that it is insufficient to merely observe mitzvahs but live a life full of indulgence, rather the Torah requires us to 'be holy'. To fulfill this mitzvah, he writes that one must abstain from physical pleasures. He even equates the holy man to the Nazir who is described as being holy for abstaining from wine. However, he makes absolutely no allusion to any sin committed by abstaining from physical pleasures even though it seems to cause pain to the 'holy' man's body.
The Toras Avraham writes that this Ramban is discussing the level of a 'Talmid Chacham', a person who strives to separate himself from the luxuries of this world. This leads to the obvious question: What is the difference between the Nazir who sinned by abstaining from wine, and the Talmid Chacham who commits no sin in following a similar process?!
There is a fundamental difference between the two. The Nazir is subject to a strong physical drive for the baser pleasures such as wine. It is painful for him to withdraw from partaking of them, therefore he is considered to be sinning by causing himself pain. In contrast, the Talmid Chacham feels no pain at avoiding physical self-indulgence because he is not bound to his physical drives. He has such a strong recognition of the futile and transient nature of physical pleasures that it is not difficult for him to abstain from them. Thus, whilst the Nazir needs atonement for causing himself pain, the Talmid Chacham is not considered to have committed any kind of misdemeanor.
We learn from here a fundamental principle; that the ideal way of separating from physical pleasures should not involve a painful process of self-deprivation. Rather it should emanate from a natural sense of the ultimate futility of physical gratification. This stands in stark contrast to the common approach to reducing one's attachment to physicality.
This is most manifest in the widespread attempts of people to lose weight through intense diets. These largely fail and it seems that a significant reason for this is that denying oneself food is a cause of great self-affliction. The dieter does not free himself of a desire for pleasant tasting foods, rather often his craving for them actually increases. Thus he goes through a painful process of self-deprivation which invariably cannot last indefinitely. It seems that the Torah approach to food should automatically enable a person to eat healthily and even lose weight.(6) If a person frees himself from his attachment to physical pleasures, then abstaining from them will become a painless process.
It still needs to be understood how a person can reach the level of the Talmid Chacham and be able to separate from physical pleasures without causing himself discomfort. The key seems to be that if one develops a strong appreciation for spirituality then he automatically frees himself of an attachment to physicality.
This dichotomy is highly relevant to our relationship with Torah that we celebrate on Shavuot. The Mishna in Avos exhorts us that the way of Torah is to eat bread and salt, drink water and sleep on the ground.(7) This does not necessarily mean that to become a Talmid Chacham one must live in this fashion; rather the Mishna is telling us that we should develop such a deep appreciation for Torah that the baser pleasures become meaningless. Consequently, for a person to aspire to be a Talmid Chacham he must be willing and able to live in a sparse way. Thus, even if he does have access to a higher standard of living he will nevertheless be able to focus on the higher pleasure of learning Torah. However, if he feels a great pull to physical comfort then it will be impossible for him to sufficiently devote himself to Torah.
This principle of freeing oneself from physical pleasures is connected to Shavuot in another way. The Magen Avraham discusses the widespread custom for men to stay awake on the night of Shavuot. He suggests that the reason for this is based on a Midrash that the Jewish people slept the whole night before the Giving of the Torah and God had to wake them up. We try to fix this error by staying awake for the whole night.(8)
What is the underlying meaning in this custom? It seems that while the Jewish people were ready to receive the Torah, nonetheless on a certain level, they also felt a degree of apprehension at the implications of doing so. It would require a high level of self-deprivation and place great demands on them. This apprehension manifested itself through sleep which represents the ultimate escape from the challenges of life. It is very common that when a person feels troubled or depressed he turns to sleep as a way of escaping his problems. The Jewish people were excited about receiving the Torah and knew that it offered them a far deeper and more meaningful form of existence but deep down they also felt an attachment to the physical pleasures that they would now have to forsake.(9) In order to fix this 'sin', we deprive ourselves of sleep to demonstrate that the joy of receiving the Torah far outweighs the loss of physical comforts such as sleep.
We have seen how there are two ways in which a person can deprive himself of physical pleasures. The Nazir's self-deprecation causes him considerable discomfort, whilst the Talmid Chacham feels no pain in refraining from such pleasures. Our goal is to reduce our attachment to the physical world through a heightened sense of appreciation for spirituality.
1. Nasso, 6:1-21.
2. Toras Avraham, p.9181-182. He was the Mashigiach of Slobodka, brother-in-law of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt"l and father-in-law of Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt"l and Rav Chaim Kreiswirth zt"l.
3. Nasso, 6:5.
4. Rashi, 6:11, quoting the Gemara in Nazir 19a and Taanis, 11a.
5. See Tosefos, Taanis, 11a who notes the same duality with regard to a person who fasts on Shabbos - he is considered to be doing a mitzva whilst simultaneously committing a sin of denying himself of physical enjoyment on Shabbos.
6. It is true that there is no mitzva to deny oneself pleasant tasting foods and that, on many occasions, it is a mitzva to eat good food. Nonetheless, this is no contradiction to the idea that a person is not meshubad to food - he can eat good foods when it is a mitzva to do so but still avoid gluttony and unhealthy eating.
7. Avos, 6:4.
8. Magen Avraham, hakdama to Simun 494.
9. This phenomenon is also seen in next week's Parsha of Behaalosecha where the Jewish people cried about the fact that they were commanded about the forbidden relations. Their pain seems to have stem from their shibud to such relations.