Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today – Naso 2024

Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today

In Pirkei Avot, a book of maxims in the Mishnah, an ancient rabbi, Ben Bag-Bag said about Torah study, Hafokh bah, vaHafokh vah, dkhola bah.” Turn it over and over, for everything is in it. For two thousand years, thats what Jews have done. Here is another turning.

Parshat Naso 2024

They shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant; they shall not drink vinegar of wine or of any other intoxicant, neither shall they drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried.  Numbers 6:3 (The Contemporary Torah, JPS, 2006)

More Flies: The Desire to Transform Change

The one constant of life is change; nothing stays the same. Like most things, this is a mixed blessing. We don’t enjoy it when a pet dies, our eyesight weakens, or inflation reduces our purchasing power. We do, however, feel proud when we get a promotion, learn a new skill, or enjoy a sunny day after a week of rain. What makes so much change difficult is how it reminds us that so much is beyond our control, forcing us to confront difficult challenges.

When we ourselves are responsible for a bad turn of events, the change is particularly painful because the outcome feels so unnecessary. We turn the past over in our heads, silently wishing we had taken a different course of action; sometimes, in an effort to repair the past, we take a vow that we will never again engage in a given activity that led us into trouble in the first place.

The nazir represents our deep desire to control life and to do better moving forward. In Parshat Naso, the Torah describes a nazir as a person who voluntarily takes a vow of consecration to God, abstaining from wine and grape products, among other voluntary restrictions. According to the Talmud, wine often lowers our inhibitions, leading us to harm ourselves and those around us.

In Numbers 6:3, we learn that Nazirites “shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant; they shall not drink vinegar of wine or of any other intoxicant, neither shall they drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried.” It makes sense to avoid intoxicants, but why would vinegar or raisins be included in this vow? The simplest explanation is our need for boundaries and distancing ourselves from our spiritual kryptonite. As Ibn Ezra notes, a Nazirite must create personal distance from anything connected to wine.

There is an additional layer of meaning here, for vinegar represents both intentional and unintentional transformation. Vinegar is one of the oldest forms of food preservation that our ancestors used, as it allowed food stuffs to be kept indefinitely even as wine vinegar itself is a preserved form of grapes. Within the Jewish tradition, vinegar plays a significant role. On Shavuot, when we return to the Book of Ruth, we read, “At mealtime, Boaz said to her, “Come over here and partake of the meal, and dip your morsel in the vinegar” (Ruth 2:15, JPS, 1985).

Despite its food and preservation value, vinegar normally is viewed negatively, as the well-known folk saying “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” illustrates. In the Talmud (Berakhot 5b), a story is told that 400 barrels of Rabbi Huna’s wine turned into vinegar because he mistreated one of his tenants. In his own desire for personal transformation, he acknowledges his misdeeds and promises to treat the tenant farmer better moving forward. This Talmudic story has a welcome conclusion, or two conclusions, for some say that the barrels of vinegar changed back into wine, while others say that the value of vinegar increased to the same price as wine. In either version, Rabbi Huna’s personal transformation restores the damage caused by his previous misdeeds.

Teshuvah, personal repentance, is powerful; sometimes it really can undo the past, unwinding our worst actions, yet we sadly know this is not always the case. The Nazirite seems to recognize this by taking a vow to prevent messing up in the first place. Despite this nobility of intention, our sages looked down upon both them and their vow-taking. They recognized that even our vows may be beyond our control to execute, creating further damage because we over-committed, breaking a new promise.

What lesson can we derive from this complex exploration of change? On the one hand, of course we should attempt to behave as well as possible, so that we won’t regret our actions or the damage bad behavior causes. On the other hand, if change is inevitable, it is important that we reach a place of acceptance: So much is beyond our control. If we can’t come to terms with life as it is, we are more likely to cause further damage, discovering in the process that we are now stuck with both flies and vinegar.