Pope Francis has taken the world by storm, not only from what he says, but how he lives.
He has shunned official Vatican limousines in favor of minibuses, he wears plain black shoes instead of the soft red loafers favored by his predecessor, Pope Benedict, and he sits down to meals with priests and other clerics in the Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican ‘hotel’ where he is living. Pope Francis is a humble, old-fashioned Jesuit priest, who pursues an ascetic lifestyle devoted to prayer.
Is this a good thing, shunning life’s joys like spending money on oneself rather than using the money for the poor? Could this be a Jewish thing?
The question is raised in this week’s Torah portion, Naso. It speaks of the Nazirite. A Nazir can best be described as a Jewish ascetic. The Nazirite makes a vow to drink no alcoholic beverages, to never cut his hair and to refrain from those things that might otherwise bring us pleasure. For Samson, the vow was to last a lifetime but for most Nazirites, it was for a limited amount of time. The vow was made in response to events in one’s life for which one was overwhelmingly thankful. It had the effect of tempering the joy, thus placing it in proper perspective.
Is the Nazirite to be commended and emulated? The answer is given in the Torah, discussing what the Nazir was to do when he concluded the period of his vow. The Nazir was to bring a sin offering to the Tabernacle or the Temple. Why would the Nazir have to bring a sin offering? What is the sin?
Maimonides taught that the sin offering is brought because the Nazir abstained from the fullness of life. “…our sages commanded man to deny himself only the things denied him only by the Torah. He should not inflict on himself vows of abstinence from things permitted him.”
Or, as we read in Talmud Yerushalmi (6th cent.): Enjoy life while you can. When you face your maker, God will ask why you did not partake of the pleasures of life which were available… And you’d better have a good explanation!
-Rabbi David Vorspan, Rabbi-in-Residence