This past Shabbat I chanted my entire bat mitzvah parsha for the first time. When I became a bat mitzvah twenty-two years ago, I read what amounted to only one aliya, albeit the most interesting one. My parents’ Conservative synagogue reads on a triennial cycle, completing the Torah every three years, so that only a selection of the parsha is read each Shabbat. On my bat mitzvah, I read the aliya that includes the description of the Nazir, the individual who takes on additional stringencies so as to become a holier person. The Nazir vows not to drink wine, cut his hair, or come into contact with the dead for a certain period of a time. The term Nazir literally means “one who abstains,” and the Nazir may perhaps be best understood as an ascetic – one who denies himself pleasure for the sake of a higher purpose. It is no wonder, given my personality, that I identified so deeply with the Nazir – both then and now.
For the dvar Torah at my bat mitzvah, I spoke about the Nazir’s obligation to bring a sin offering at the end of his period of abstention. At first it seems strange that someone who seeks to become more holy has to bring a sin offering. How can holiness be sinful? In the eponymous tractate of the Talmud dedicated to the Nazir, Rabbi Elazar HaKapar considers this question: “Rabbi Elazar HaKapar said in the name of Rebbe: What does it mean, ‘And he shall make expiation for the sin that he incurred on the soul’ (Numbers 6:11). Against what soul did he sin? Rather, he sinned in that he distressed himself [by abstaining] from wine. And if one who distresses himself by abstaining only from wine is called a sinner, how much more so is one who abstains from all things a sinner!” (Nazir 19a). As I said at my bat mitzvah, Judaism is not a religion of asceticism. We are supposed to enjoy the delicious and pleasurable aspects of life – not in a greedy or hedonistic manner, but in a way that acknowledges and pays tribute their divine source. We are not supposed to engage in self-denial, but to enrich ourselves with all that life has to offer.
At the time, I was on the brink of adolescence, speaking from the bimah in a navy blue polka dot suit chosen by my mother, with my hair tied back in a bow I was sure was too big for my head. I had no idea how prescient my dvar Torah would prove when, just a few years later, I became ill with anorexia. It is a chapter of my life I rarely return to, as it seems both predictably mundane—of course an overachiever like myself would have anorexia—and painfully private. Always a lover of language, I recall musing on the phonetic similarity between “ascetic” and “aesthetic,” believing that through self-denial, I could achieve a sort of delicate beauty. And while I could easily be flooded by memories from that period, the one that seems most pertinent now is of a Shabbat spent in the eating disorders ward of the hospital, holed up with five other skeletons. I requested a cup of grape juice so I could make kiddish; but then I realized that before performing the ritual handwashing, I’d have to unplug my IV, thereby violating Shabbat. I remember standing there wondering what to do. Just weeks ago I was a normal college student, but I had been catapulted from the Ivy League to the IV League with little hope of release.
I thought about these matters again as I prepared to leyn Naso in full for the first time. Like the anorexic, the Nazir aspires to a certain level of self-perfection, believing that he or she can transcend the needs and desires to which most people submit. This perfectionist strain has always run deep within me, particularly when it comes to reading Torah. As far as I know, I leyned the parsha flawlessly last Shabbat – not because I wanted to make a show of reading perfectly, but simply because, well, I wanted to read perfectly. I also leyned the haftara, returning to the story of the prophet Shimshon, who was a Nazir from birth. The haftara portrays the annunciation scene in which an angel informs the unnamed wife of Manoach that she will become a mother to a savior of Israel. In the past I have always read this chapter of Judges as a feminist tale about a woman who could see what her husband could not; she knew immediately that she had spoken with an angel, whereas her husband – to whom the angel initially did not even deign to appear—needs to be hit on the head again and again until he gets it. This time, however, I read the haftara in a new light. Manoach’s wife, formerly barren, is told that at last she is going to have a child. But even though this dream will be realized, she is going to have to accept a less-than-perfect reality, because her son is going to be subject to difficult strictures – he may not cut his hair, or eat any grape products whatsoever, for he will be a Nazir from womb to tomb.
As I realized this year, this haftara is also a story about becoming a mother. And if being a Nazir is about being perfect, being a mother is just the opposite. It is about accepting that one cannot even presume to be perfect, and that any attempt to do so will inevitably fail. I used to think that being perfect meant waking up, davening, jogging, showering and learning daf yomi all before 9am. These days at 9am I am almost always still in pajamas, sitting on the couch with one baby on the breast and one baby wailing after her morning nap. Sometimes I am balancing a Gemara on the shoulder of the couch, but more often I am dozing off. Yesterday morning a grape rolled by as I was nursing. Our son was throwing his breakfast, which he insisted on eating while holding one of his favorite toys: his father’s shaver. (We take off the blade before giving it to him.) He will never be perfect, and neither will I. For that I suppose I can bring a Korban Todah, an offering of thanks.