The parsha discusses the mitzva of Nezirus, whereby a person takes a vow to abstain from wine, to avoid coming into contact with a dead body, and to let his hair grow . The author of Toras Avraham, Rav Avraham Grodzinki zt”l , discusses a number of difficulties with regard to the spiritual standing of the Nazir. He notes that at one point the Torah describes him as ’holy’ for depriving himself of physical pleasure . However, soon after, in the process of describing the sacrifices that he brings, it tells us that he must bring a sin-offering to atone for a certain aveira that he has committed. What is that aveira? Rashi brings the opinion of Rebbe Elazar Hakappa that his sin was that he caused himself pain by depriving himself of the enjoyment of drinking wine . Thus there is a blatant contradiction as to whether the Nazir is doing a great mitza or is in fact committing an aveira.
The Toras Avraham answers that the Nazir is doing the right thing - he is someone who feels an unhealthy tendency towards physical pleasure, and therefore deems it necessary to make the drastic step of taking a vow of Nezirus. However, there is an element of sin in this action that requires atonement. The Toras Avraham explains that G-d created man with a body and soul and that it is wrong for man to totally neglect his body. Man‘s job in this world is to live in the physical world but to elevate it. The Nazir feels that he cannot do this without totally abstaining from wine. He is correct for acting this way, but in doing so, he causes his body considerable discomfort because it has a certain level of shibud (attachment) to the physical world and feels pain at being deprived of the pleasures that the physical world has to offer. Consequently, he is considered ‘holy’ for undertaking such a bold process of purification, but simultaneously needs to bring a sin offering for causing pain to his body .
Having explained the duality in the act of Nezirus, the Torah Avraham then poses a new problem. He brings the Ramban at the beginning of Parshas Kedoshim who writes that it is not sufficient to merely observe mitzvas but live a life full of indulgence, rather the Torah requires us to ’be holy’. To fulfill this mitzva, he writes that one must abstain from physical pleasures. He even equates the holy man to the Nazir who is described as being holy for abstaining from wine. However, he makes absolutely no allusion to any sin committed by abstaining from physical pleasures even though it seems to cause pain to the ’holy’ man’s body. The Toras Avraham writes that this Ramban is discussing the level of a ‘Talmid Chacham’, a person who strives to separate himself from the luxuries of this world. This leads to the obvious question: What is the difference between the Nazir who sinned by abstaining from wine, and the Talmid Chacham who commits no sin in following a similar process?!
The answer is that there is a fundamental difference between the prishus (separation) of the Nazir and that of the Talmid Chacham. The Nazir is subject to a strong physical drive for the baser pleasures such as wine. It is painful for him to withdraw from partaking of them, therefore he is considered to be sinning by causing himself pain. In contrast the Talmid Chacham feels no pain at avoiding physical self-indulgence because he is not bound to his physical drives. He has such a strong recognition of the futile and transient nature of physical pleasures that it is not difficult for him to abstain from them. Thus, whilst the Nazir needs atonement for causing himself pain, the Talmid Chacham is not considered to have committed any kind of misdemeanor.
We learn from here a fundamental principle; that the ideal way of separating from physical pleasures should not involve a painful process of self-deprivation. Rather it should emanate from a natural sense of the ultimate futility of physical gratification. This stands in stark contrast to the secular attitude to self-deprivation. This is most manifest in the widespread attempts of people to lose weight through intense diets. These largely fail and it seems that a significant reason for this is that denying oneself food is a cause of great self-affliction. The dieter does not free himself of a desire for pleasant tasting foods, rather often his craving for them actually increases. Thus he goes through a painful process of self-deprivation which invariably cannot last indefinitely. It seems that the Torah approach to food should automatically enable a person to eat healthily and even lose weight . If a person frees himself from his shibudim to physical pleasures, then abstaining from them will become a painless process. One ben Torah who was somewhat overweight and was known to eat large amounts of food, undertook to reduce his food intake through a gradual process of reducing his shibudim to food - in the process he lost about thirty pounds in a few months!
It still needs to be understood how a person can reach the level of the Talmid Chacham and be able to separate from physical pleasures without causing himself discomfort. The key seems to be that if one develops a strong appreciation for spirituality then he automatically frees himself of a shibud to physicality. A yeshiva bachur once asked Rav Noach Orlowek Shlita that he looked forward to lunch more than mincha - how could he change this? Rav Orlowek answered him that he should deepen his appreciation for tefilla and by doing so he would automatically reduce his preference for lunch.
This dichotomy is highly relevant to our relationship with Torah that we celebrate on Shavuos. The Mishna in Avos exhorts us that the way of Torah is to eat bread and salt, drink water and sleep on the ground . This does not necessarily mean that to become a Talmid Chacham one must live in this fashion, rather the Mishna is telling us that we should develop such a deep appreciation for Torah that the baser pleasures become meaningless. Consequently, for a person to aspire to be a Talmid Chacham he must be willing and able to live in a sparse way. Thus, even if he does have access to a higher standard of living he will nevertheless be able to focus on the higher pleasure of learning Torah. However, if he feels a great pull to physical comfort then it will be impossible for him to sufficiently devote himself to Torah.
This principle of freeing oneself from physical pleasures is connected to Shavuos in another way. The Magen Avraham discusses the widespread Minhag for men to stay awake on the night of Shavuos. He suggests that the reason for this is based on a Medrash that the Jewish people slept the whole night before Mattan Torah and Hashem had to wake them up. We try to metaken (fix) this error by staying awake for the whole night . What is the underlying meaning in this Minhah? It seems that whilst the Jewish people were ready to receive the Torah, nonetheless on a certain level, they also felt a degree of apprehension at the implications of doing so. It would require a high level of self-deprivation and place great demands on them. This apprehension manifest itself through sleep which represents the ultimate escape from the challenges of life. It is very common that when a person feels troubled or depressed he turns to sleep as a way of escaping his problems. The Jewish people were excited about receiving the Torah and knew that it offered them a far deeper and more meaningful form of existence but deep down they also felt a shibud to the physical pleasures that they would now have to forsake . In order to metaken this ‘sin’, we deprive ourselves of sleep to demonstrate that the joy of receiving the Torah far outweighs the loss of physical comforts such as sleep.
We have seen how there are two ways in which a person can deprive himself of physical pleasures. The Nazir’s self-deprecation causes him considerable discomfort, whilst the Talmid Chacham feels no pain in refraining from such pleasures. Our goal is to reduce our shibudim to the physical world through a heightened sense of appreciation for spirituality. Shavuos is an apt time to work on developing this love of spirituality by recognizing that the joy of learning Torah all night far outweighs that of sleeping!