Samson and Gallant: Commentary on Parashat Naso 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary
Among my fondest memories of Highlights for Children remains the Goofus and Gallant comic strip, illustrating what is wrong to do (what Goofus does) and. what is right to do (what Gallant does).
Image of excerpt from Goofus and Gallant comic strip by Garry Cleveland Myers (illustrated by Marion Hull Hammel). On the left side, Goofus opens a box labeled “CANDY” and scowls, and, Gallant, opposite Goofus, looks joyfully at a box of candy. The text reads: “‘I wish nobody else wanted any of this,’ says Goofus. ‘Won’t it be wonderful to have so much candy for the kids when they come,’ says Gallant.” Courtesy of Highlights for Children, retrieved at https://www.npr.org/2019/11/26/783031197/highlights-magazine-sticks-to-winning-formula-of-mixing-fun-with-learning on June 2, 2023.
I often consider myself a rule follower, and I find great joy in Jewish tradition. The Hebrew Bible therefore occasionally disappoints me for failing to show us a very simple Goofus and Gallant chart of what is right vs. what is wrong. The greatest heroes in the Hebrew Bible are flawed individuals. We know that no human is perfect. More poignantly, our religion derives from faith in a God whose imperfection is so palpable that our tradition even records some of God’s regrets (see, for example, Genesis 6:6, Exodus 32:14, II Samuel 24:6, Jonah 3:10, Jeremiah 26:19, and I Chronicles 21:15).
Instead of presenting us clear opposites of good and bad in ethical or sacred decisions, the Hebrew Bible serves better as a moral laboratory. Our spiritual ancestors conducted experiments in ethics. In her book War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence, Dr. Susan Niditch points to biblical stories where the Israelites attempted to compose a better code of military ethics in a sacred key. Is it of greater moral value to wage a war where spoils are left untouched by humans than to let the conquerors keep the spoils? Is it holier for humans to fight their own battles, or should Israelites call upon their deity to fight their battles for them? These questions led to stories about different types of military conquests—each one worthy of a different moral evaluation. So too, the Hebrew Bible collects stories that play out the variables our ancestors tested out in partnership structures (did having a concubine work for Abraham, did having two concubines work for Jacob, and did having zero concubines work for Isaac?) or parental relationships (was it okay for Abraham to almost-kill Isaac, and was it okay for Jacob to favor Joseph so publicly?). Our Bible is replete with stories that serve as moral experiments; we modify the variables with each experiment and then assess the moral and sacred character of our forebears.
When faced with the ascetic practice of becoming a nazir (נָזִיר), our ancestors took a different approach. Participating in the sacrificial cult of our ancestors might lead a few individuals to aspire to the holiness of priests by adopting a few practices of self-denial (no wine, no haircuts, no vinegar, no grapes)—all leading to that sacred status of nazir. When pondering how sustainable the life of a nazir may have been though, the editors of the Hebrew Bible rather quickly rendered the nazir a cautionary tale. The Hebrew Bible does not show us a great multitude of nazir after nazir, each one living a holier life than his predecessor. Instead, the Hebrew Bible bequeaths to us Samson, a Goofus among our ancestors. Even worse, Samson knew no Gallant; our Bible reports no other true nazir of note. (The oath Samuel’s mother made in I Samuel 1:11 approached fell short of dedicating her child-to-be to the life of a nazir.)
Before there had been Israelite kings, back when Philistines had harshly ruled the Land of Israel (Judges 13:1), an angel of Adonai approached a woman who had been unable to become pregnant. This angel came evidently to inform this woman of an oath to which her unexpected child would be subject (Judges 13:2–4):
הִנָּ֨ךְ הָרָ֜ה וְיֹלַ֣דְתְּ בֵּ֗ן וּמוֹרָה֙ לֹא־יַעֲלֶ֣ה עַל־רֹאשׁ֔וֹ כִּֽי־נְזִ֧יר אֱלֹהִ֛ים יִֽהְיֶ֥ה הַנַּ֖עַר מִן־הַבָּ֑טֶן וְה֗וּא יָחֵ֛ל לְהוֹשִׁ֥יעַ אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִיַּ֥ד פְּלִשְׁתִּֽים׃
Behold, you are pregnant! You will give birth to a son! But no razor shall rise to his head, for the lad shall be a nazir of God from the womb, and he will begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines. (Judges 13:5.)
The newfound mother may have understood that the life of a nazir spelled trouble. No matter how holy the hero, would any attempt of saving the Israelites from the Philistines not end in a death sentence? She turned to her husband and (mis)quoted a slightly different version of the angel’s promise, most notably, featuring a darker alternative ending (or interpretation): “כִּֽי־נְזִ֤יר אֱלֹהִים֙ יִֽהְיֶ֣ה הַנַּ֔עַר מִן־הַבֶּ֖טֶן עַד־י֥וֹם מוֹתֽוֹ׃” (“for the lad shall be a nazir of God from the womb until the day of his death”) (Judges 13:7). From Samson’s birth (Judges 13:24) until his death (Judges 16:30)—despite whatever peaceful acts of self-denial may have been involved in avoiding haircuts and grape products—the deeds that most defined Samson’s legacy were largely violent in an ungodly sort of way. Perhaps Samson’s mother understood “י֥וֹם מוֹתֽוֹ” (“the day of his death”) to be, not when he would die, but the day when Samson would begin dealing death unto others. Inasmuch as this week’s torah reading notes that contact with the dead defiles the status of the nazir (Numbers 6:9), killing was no calling for a nazir. Samson’s status as a nazir concerned him less than his hankering for power.
Samson’s impulse to conquer ran contrary to the very spirit of what a nazir ought to have been. This week’s torah reading, in listing some basic laws of the nazir in abstract, notes that a nazir who was close to a dead body should bring two small birds as an expiatory sacrifice (Numbers 6:9–10). This ritual, intended to restore validity to the erstwhile nazir, ran pretty cheap; of all the animals an Israelite could have sacrificed, birds were understood to be the easiest to prepare for an offering and the least expensive to acquire. In the early rabbinic commentary on Numbers, Bemidbar Rabbah 25:10, Rabbi Shemayah suggested that
כְּשֶׁנָּזַר לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם נִתְכַּוֵּן וּכְשֶׁנִּטְמָא מְאַבֵּד כָּל מַה שֶּׁעָשָׂה וְחוֹזֵר מֵרֹאשׁ, לְפִיכָךְ חָסָה הַתּוֹרָה עָלָיו לִפְטֹר עַצְמוֹ בְּקָרְבַּן עָנִי.
when the nazir made his vow, he devoted himself to the name of Heaven. But, when he became impure [by contact with the dead], he would have lost everything [gained from what] he had done [as a nazir and in becoming a nazir], and he would have to start over. Therefore, the Torah had mercy for him, exempting him [from a more expensive animal sacrifice and permitting him] a sacrifice [affordable] to a person in need.
There may have been lifestyle choices in antiquity even more frugal than disavowing barbers and grape-based foodstuffs. Still, the time allotted to the holy life assumed of a nazir must have necessitated both some privilege (such as enough money to get by while unemployed) and then the disavowing of that privilege (in deciding to spend time among priests rather than employers who pay an income). The nazir was not a profitable business model—or really any business model. The lust for control that steered Samson was the exact opposite of a nazir’s choice to relinquish concern for earthly possessions. A true nazir chose austere living. On the other hand, Samson never chose to be a nazir; an angel had announced to Samson’s mother that the child was predestined to be born a nazir. She figured his life as a nazir would be his death—that his life would be deadly.
Every once in a while, a Goofus needs no Gallant. Our ancient forebears tried to wrap their heads around the idea of the nazir, but they found little value in the enterprise. The only story our ancestors needed was a story about how Samson’s self-deprivation would lead to his depriving so many others of their lives. A spiritual life requires self-discipline, but refusing to enjoy life is no job for a Jew. We need a little worldly nourishment so that we can in turn nourish the world around us. If we cannot nourish those around us, what good is religion to the world? The anthologizers of the Hebrew Bible ran one narrative experiment for the nazir: Samson. He failed. They did not need or want a nazir at all, it turned out—and the rabbis who assigned any part of Samson’s story to be read as the haftarah accompanying Parashat Naso believed this deeply. Holier than a nazir was no nazir at all.
It takes joy for us to practice a Judaism that improves our world. God placed us on this earth so that we may serve it and protect it (Genesis 2:15), and God knows we must seek happiness to buoy us along.
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