Sanctity and sanctimony

Sanctity and sanctimony

Nasi — Numbers 4:21-7:89

We are all full of contradictions. There is part of us that is noble, kind, and generous. But another part is selfish and stingy — and can even be cruel.

That is the way we were created. We have the potential for good, yet it is matched with our potential for evil. At different times and in different circumstances throughout our lives, one part or the other dominates.

What is especially fascinating is that often we are both good and evil, kind and cruel, at the same time. It is no wonder then that we know so many people who can best be described in paradoxical terms: the wounded healer, the generous miser, the sinful saint, the foolish sage, the righteous knave.

In this week’s Torah portion, Naso, we meet an individual who displays both negative and positive qualities in the very same role. I speak of the Nazarite, Nazir in Hebrew, the man or woman who vows to adopt an ascetic lifestyle, a lifestyle of abstention from wine and anything connected to wine, and who commits to never shaving or taking a haircut or to coming into contact with the dead, even at the funerals of his or her own parents or siblings.

The very word “nazir” means to withdraw, to remove oneself from others and from worldly pleasures. The Torah describes such a person, over and over again, as holy. “He shall be holy”; “He is holy unto the Lord.” (Numbers 6:5 and 6:8)

Yet, a Nazarite who inadvertently come into contact with the dead is to offer a specified set of sacrifices. And these sacrifices are to “make atonement for him, for he sinned al hanefesh — by reason of the soul.” (Numbers 6:11)

What does it mean to “sin by reason of the soul”? The simple meaning is that the “soul” here refers to the soul of the dead body he accidentally came into contact with. So he needs atonement for his chance exposure to a corpse.

Another opinion in the Talmud says that “soul” here refers to the Nazarite’s own soul, and that somehow, in renouncing the pleasures of life, he has sinned against his very own soul. In the words of Dr. J.H. Hertz, whose commentary on the Bible has become, regrettably in my opinion, less popular than it once was, “…he was ordered to make atonement for his vow to abstain from drinking wine, an unnecessary self-denial in regard to one of the permitted pleasures of life.”

The Torah recognizes the inner contradiction of the Nazarite’s lifestyle. On the one hand, it is a lifestyle of holiness, and that is to be commended. But on the other hand, it renounces the pleasures of God’s world and, as such, expresses ingratitude, perhaps unacceptably extreme piety.

I often reflect upon this talmudic view and its implications. For we frequently encounter in our religious worlds individuals who are in many ways paragons of spiritual virtue but who at the same time radiate an attitude of condescension to others of lesser spiritual attainments.

We have all met people who are outwardly very religious, and perhaps even inwardly and sincerely so, but who seem to be saying to us, “I am holier than thou.” And we have all felt belittled, sometimes insulted, but invariably put off by such individuals.

There is a word in English, although I have never been able to find a precise Hebrew equivalent, that describes such behavior. That word is “sanctimonious.” The dictionary defines “sanctimonious” as “pretending to be very holy or pious; affecting righteousness.”

This definition seems to stress the fraudulent or insincere quality of the sanctimonious individual, but I have often found that these individuals are quite sincere in their conscience; but their righteousness is accompanied by an attitude of “holier than thou.”

I do not want simply to point out the self-righteous behavior we experience in others. I think that we are all sometimes guilty of sanctimony and need to be on guard against it.

Sincerely religious people, too, need to be careful not to send the message, “I am holier than thou.” Our acts of piety must be sincere, but we must also be cautious that those acts not be viewed by others as statements of spiritual superiority.

The religious person must always be on guard against hypocrisy and must always be sensitive to the reactions he or she provokes in others. If those reactions are of respect and admiration, then we have made a kiddush Hashem, advancing the cause of our faith.

But if others are made to feel inferior by our airs of religious observance, then not only have we lost them to our faith, but we have fostered a hillul Hashem, causing others to look negatively upon the religion they represent.

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