The vow of the nazir (נזיר), also known as the nazarite, is one of those more peculiar practices in the Jewish tradition. This vow, which has its origins in Numbers 6, entails three main prohibitions: drinking wine and grape juice (which was later extended to all alcoholic beverages), cutting one's hair, and coming into contact with corpses. After the nazarite completes his term as a nazarite, the individual, whether male or female, is obligated to bring offerings to the Temple. Interestingly enough, while it is possible to be a nazarite today, it is highly discouraged for two reasons. First, the vow of the nazarite would have to be a permanent vow. The second reason is that the nazarite would need to be confined to the land of Israel.
Upon first glance, this vow does not seem to particularly spiritual. The nazarite does not entail a monastic lifestyle. It does not stop one from enjoying life or socializing with others. There is only one nazarite mentioned in the entirety of Hebrew Scriptures: Samson. Upon reading the Book of Judges, we find that in spite of being an ancient rockstar, Samson was violent, short-tempered, and promiscuous. None of those character flaws would be considered lofty goals, and could very well suggest that the nazarite vow is inefficient in inculcating change. Yet there is an entire tractate of the Talmud (Tractate Nazir), as well a chapter of Mishneh Torah, that is devoted to the particulars of the nazarite vow. What is it about the nazarite vow that is so edifying, and more to the point, what can we glean from the nazarite vow for the High Holy Days?
The Hebrew word nazir comes from the root נ-ז-ר, which can either mean "crown" (e.g., II Samuel 1:10) or "separation" (e.g., Leviticus 22:2). Etymologically speaking, the nazarite is used both the distinguish and distance oneself from certain acts. Why does one who takes the nazarite vow feel the need to distance oneself? Based on the Talmud (Sotah 2a), Rashi asks why the case of the adulteress and the nazarite are juxtaposed. Rashi's conclusion was that whoever sees an adulteress in her disgrace should vow to abstain from wine, for such inebriation leads to lewd behavior. From Rashi's point of view, the nazarite vow can either be viewed as a preventative measure or a measure to change one's current behavior into something holier.
The way I have viewed the nazarite, however, has been something more of a mixed bag to the point where I consider the nazarite to be a holy sinner. On the one hand, the nazarite is willing do make a change in life and is willing to go beyond the minimal requirement to acquire holiness. Abstaining from alcohol provides one with a greater clarity of mind, letting one's hair grow allows for one to be less distracted with one's physical appearance (Numbers Rabbah 10:10), and the separation from dead bodies is a step of ritual purity that goes beyond the laws of ritual purity for priests. The fact that the nazarite is able to make these changes and ascend to such holiness is why Ramban is of the opinion that the sin offering is brought because the vow has ended. Rambam also believes that the nazarite is praiseworthy (Mishneh Torah, Nezirut 10:14) because by abstention, one avoids worse evils.
On the other hand, the individual had to go through such an extreme that they were willing to prevent themselves from elevating the physical world by consuming that which is technically permitted, which is why Rambam views the fact that one had to take on the nazarite vow in the first place as a sin (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De'ot, 3:1). The Kli Yakar opined that one who could maintain self-control did not need to take the nazarite vow. As the Jerusalem Talmud states (Kiddushin 4:12), one will have to account for all the good food and drink for which G-d put in the world and refused to consume. Shimon HaTzaddik made it a point to not eat the offerings of a nazarite because his view was that the nazarite made the vow either in excessive guilt or enthusiasm (Numbers Rabbah 10:7). R. Shmuly Yanklowitz brings another thought to why the nazarite vow ends in a sin offering: Instead of dealing with the problem head-on, we are avoiding the problem, which is incomplete personal change. This extreme should not normally be permitted, but perhaps it is a lesson showing us how the changes we make in our lives, even holy and lofty ones, can come with mixed results. The Mei Shiloach teaches that Tractate Nazir comes before Tractate Sotah in the ordering of the Talmud to teach us that we should have enough foresight to make sure we don't have to learn the hard way. It is edifying to learn things that we should not emulate, but what more can we learn from the nazarite about what we should do to changing ourselves?
The first thing is recognizing that one has to make the change. The Gemara (Nazir 11b) points out if a vow is made unintentionally, e.g., the vow was made and the individual had been mistaken to the facts of the situation, one can approach a halachic authority to annul the vow. For change to work, we need to have awareness of what needs to change before we make that change.
While knowing is half the battle, it is not enough to be cognizant of one's need to change. One can be aware and still continue in the undesired behavior. That could explain why if a nazarite vow were made in a cemetery, the period of the vow cannot begin until one is no longer within the cemetery (Nazir 16b). Coming back to the metaphor, one can begin to change until one is in the proper frame of mind and takes that first step to start the change.
The first step towards change might not be the largest step one will take in self-transformation, but it is the most important one because it is the step to start the momentum. That fact is illustrated by the nazarite. As R. Shmuel Herzfeld points out in his recently published book Renewal, the nazarite is making a limited and realistic goal (p. 77).
Not only are the prohibitions limited in nature, but so is the timeframe of the nazarite vow. The default length of a nazarite vow is thirty days (Nazir 5a). Yes, one technically can take on a nazarite vow for longer, and even take on the nazarite vow for life. The fact that one can lengthen the vow shows that one is to determine the length of the vow based on their own determination via introspection of one's own particular situation. When I see the default length of the nazarite vow, I cannot help but conclude that in spite of the fact that we should have a long-term sense of where we would like to go in life, we should put greater emphasis and focus of our goal-setting in the here and now. As I learned in a recent shiur with R. Haim Ovadia, we make a mistake in this sort of goal-setting by asking ourselves what our purpose is in life. R. Ovadia quoted Viktor Frankl and got us to think of the question of what is our purpose in life right now. The nazarite shows that limiting goals is important because it helps put extra effort into not erring. That ability to devote total focus and dedication on certain aspects of our life that truly need fixing is why the root נ-ז-ר means "crown." We crown with ourselves a realistic way to make ourselves into better human beings.
We hear about how goals need to be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. As much as George T. Doran is credited with the SMART paradigm for setting goals, it was really G-d who provided us with the paradigm for optimal goal-setting. Only 8 percent of people are able to keep New Year's resolutions, which can be a depressing figure for those of us who want to bring about true change in our life. However, if we follow in the footsteps of the nazarite and keep our goals SMART, we can experience a sense of renewal that the High Holy Days are meant to bring in our lives.