This week’s Torah reading contains the mitzvah of nizirus, taking nazirite vows. That subject presents a paradox. On one hand, regarding a nazirite, the Torah states: “The diadem of his G‑d is upon his head... He is holy unto G‑d” and he is equated with a prophet, as it is written: “And from your sons, I will raise [some] as prophets, and from your youths, [some] as nazirites.”

Nevertheless, the Torah also requires a nazirite to bring a sin-offering, stating that he has “sinned against his soul.” And our Sages speak critically of him, posing a rhetorical question: “Are not the things which the Torah has prohibited sufficient for you? [Why] must you add further prohibitions?”

For asceticism was always disdained by the Torah. As opposed to other faiths which place other-worldly hermits on pedestals, Judaism puts the emphasis on sanctifying the here and now, bringing holiness into the context of our ordinary experience. In that vein, our Sages taught that the verse: “Know Him in all your ways” is “A small passage upon which all the fundamentals of Torah depend.” For Judaism underscores the importance of knowing G‑d, not only in the synagogue or the house of study, but in every dimension of our everyday lives: in our business, our homes, and even in the way we relax. As Maimonides says: “A person should direct his heart and the totality of his behavior to one goal, becoming aware of G‑d, blessed be He. The way he rests, rises, and speaks should all be directed to this end.” For the purpose of creation is to use every element of existence in G‑d’s service.

By denying himself wine, a nazirite takes an opposite tact. Wine is the symbol of happiness and pleasure, a substance that enables us to let loose and relax. But this happiness and relaxation should be a holy experience, carried out in a manner which brings a person closer to the Divine. When a person abstains from wine, he is saying that he does not know how to sanctify such activity.

Why then is a nazirite praised? Because sometimes a person must admit his shortcomings. When a person looks himself in the mirror and realizes that he has certain tendencies that he is almost powerless to control, he is in fact taking the first step towards controlling them. Again to quote Maimonides, “taking and maintaining vows to abstain from certain [undesirable] elements [of conduct] ingrains in a person the tendency to bridle the desires he seeks to curb.” This tendency will continue and it will be easy for him to acquire the quality of restraint — i.e., the tendency to protect oneself from impurity.”

So when a nazirite takes a vow to develop self-control and inner discipline, the Torah considers it admirable. When he does so because he thinks that G‑d’s ultimate intent is other-worldly abstinence, our Sages consider his conduct comparable to sin.

Looking to the Horizon

The ultimate resolution of the inner conflict described above will be in the era of Mashiach when “Good will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust.” At present, since material existence presents a challenge and a person could genuinely need curbs, restraint plays an important role in our Divine service.

But in the era of Mashiach, when “The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G‑d,” there will be no need for such checks. For in that environment of revealed G‑dliness, man will not be motivated by selfish desires. He will take advantage of all the good the world has to offer, but will appreciate how that good is an expression of G‑d’s kindness and therefore employ all of these influences in His service.