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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall — BT Nedarim 9b — #87


Shimon ha-Tzaddik said [in a baraita], “In all my life, I never ate the guilt-offering of a nazirite who became tamei [ritually impure] with one exception. Once a certain man, a nazirite [who had become tamei] came from the south and I saw that he had beautiful eyes and was handsome, with curly locks. I said to him, ‘My son, why did you see fit to destroy your beautiful hair?’ He said to me, ‘I was a shepherd for my father in town. I went to fill [a bucket with water] from the spring and I gazed down at my reflection [in the water] and my yetzer rushed over me and threatened to banish me from the world. I said to [my yetzer], “Evil one! Why are you so arrogant in a world that is not yours, with one who is destined to be [consumed by] worms and maggots? By the Temple Service, I will shave you for [the sake of] heaven.”’ Immediately, I arose and kissed him on his head and I said to him, ‘My son, may there be more who make nazirite vows like you in Israel! It is about you that Scripture says, If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a nazirite’s vow, to set himself apart for Adonai… (Numbers 6:2).” 

INTRODUCTION
The background for this story is found most prominently in the Metamorphosis of Ovid (43 BCE - 17 or 18 CE), the Roman poet who wrote the classic version of the Greek tale of Narcissus. Narcissus, the son of a river god and a nymph, one day discovered his magnificently beautiful reflection in a pool of water. Not realizing it was his own image, he became so transfixed by his own beauty that he fell hopelessly in love with it and lost the will to do anything else but gaze at his own reflection. The term narcissism derives from this story. Many artists have painted Narcissus; my favorite is by Caravaggio (shown here to the right).

The story Shimon ha-Tzaddik tells in the Talmud provides evidence that the Rabbis were familiar with Greek and Roman stories. In this case, the talmudic re-write of the tale of Narcissus is instructive of rabbinic values.

The Rabbis were suspicious nazirites. Torah presents the nazirite as one who takes on additional vows (to abstain from cutting his hair, drinking grapes or wine, and avoiding contact with the dead) presumably to attain a greater level of holiness. But the Rabbis were wary: There are sufficiently many obligations imposed by Torah. Is this an act of spirituality or hubris? Is a nazirite someone who makes the vow because he is in control of his yetzer ra (evil inclination), or someone who is inspired to to be a nazirite by his arrogant and narcissistic yetzer?

COMMENTARY
The sacrifice of a nazirite, should he become ritually impure, or after he finished the period of his vow, was eaten by a kohen (priest). Apparently, Shimon ha-Tzaddik, a High Priest according to tradition, avoided eating the sacrifices of nazirites as a matter of personal practice. Our story concerns an exception he once made. The nazirite whose sacrifice he agreed to eat had three hallmarks of someone the High Priest and rabbi would disdain and look down upon: he was a shepherd, he came from the south, and he was, of course, a nazirite. 

Shimon notices the man’s exceptional beauty and therefore asks why he would be willing to cut off his hair, as is required at the end of the period of the vow. The man replies that he once gazed at his own reflection in a pool of water and immediately felt overwhelmed by the yetzer ra—he felt in danger of losing himself as Narcissus had done. His glimpse of his own beauty risked his life, but unlike Narcissus, he pulled himself away from the brink by reminding himself that beauty is ephemeral; all are destined to decompose in the ground (here, the nazirite quotes Pirkei Avot 3:1). He thereupon took the vow to counteract the power of his own yetzer, intentionally destroying the beauty that threatened to overwhelm his character. Recognizing the rightness of his intentions, Shimon ha-Tzaddik agrees to eat, and thereby validate, his sacrificial offering.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
  1. Is there a conflict between self-esteem, as it is promoted today, and the middah (character attribute) of humility? Does social media, which encourages us to curate our lives and promote a certain image, narcissism?
  2. In Ovid’s version of the tale of Narcissus, the arrogant and proud young man spurns many suitors, among them a nymph who implores the gods, “So may he love himself, and so may he fail to command what he loves.” This is a classic case of what the Sages called middah k’neged middah (“measure for measure”). Just as Narcissus refused to reciprocate the love of those who had fallen in love with him, he fell in love with his own image which could not reciprocate his love. Do you think that self-love and narcissism can interfere with a person’s ability to be in a loving relationship with another person? How?
  3. One of the chief differences between the Greek story of Narcissus and the talmudic tale of the nazirite concerns self-awareness. Narcissus is utterly unaware of how his obsession with his  image is effecting him; he is even unaware that the image that transfixes him is his own. The nazirite, in contrast, is keenly self-aware and can therefore sidestep the trap that claims Narcissus’ life. In Ovid’s telling, after Narcissus dies, the water nymphs go to collect his body to place on his funeral pyre, but it has disappeared. In its place they find a flower with a yellow center surrounded by white petals. Still beautiful, but all humanity gone. The nazirite, in contrast, emerges as beautiful as ever—outside and inside. What do you think is the relationship between self-awareness and beauty? Between humility and beauty?

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