May 26th, 2018
12 Sivan 5778
This week we read from Parshat Naso – the second portion in the book of Numbers. The parsha follows on the heels of the census taken by Moses and tells us about priestly practices and sacrifices in the Temple of old. We first learn of the Nazirite tradition in this week’s parsha and we are told that Nazirim are a line of equal opportunity holy men, much like the line of the priesthood. However, unlike the kohanim (the priests who were descended from Aaron) any Israelite could become a Nazir if he took certain vows. Nazirim were consecrated to the service of God under vows of abstinence from alcohol, from cutting their hair, and from interaction with the bodies of the dead.
As you know however, each week we also read from a portion of the Haftarah, the Prophetic writings that are thematically related to the Parshat haShavua. When we reach the book of Judges, from which our haftarah this week is excerpted, we learn of Samson the Nazirite (thus the thematic link between the two stories) who is blessed with superhuman strength and the woman Delilah who learns his one weakness, and brings the hero to his knees.
Samson’s story begins with a recognizable biblical trope. His mother has been struggling with infertility and is bereft at her inability to bear a son. Eventually however, like Sarah and Hannah before her, Samson’s mother (who goes unnamed) is visited by an angel of God who promises her and her husband that she will soon have a son and that he will grow up to be someone very special. The angel tells her that her son will be a mighty hero and that in exchange for this gift, she must give him to God to be God’s servant and thus, her son will be a Nazirite and a razor must never touch his scalp.
As Samson grows up he is indeed blessed with a near superhuman strength and in an interesting plot twist, his hair becomes the source of that strength. Elie Wiesel writes, “Samson laughed at his enemies, whom he effortlessly vanquished. Nothing frightened him. With one hand he could reduce and entire mountain to dust.” However, if his hair was cut, he would immediately be weakened and brought to his demise.
If this story sounds familiar it is because Samson was one of the earliest inspirations for the character of Superman. His creator, Jerry Siegel was strongly influenced by the anti-semitism he saw and experienced growing up in Cleveland, OH in the 1930s. He was surrounded by other Jews many of whom were small and studious like he was. According to an article in the Forward, “It was a place and time where weaklings – especially Jewish ones who were more likely to get sand kicked in their faces by the bully down the block if not Adolf Hitler – dreamed that someday the world would see them for the superheroes they really were.
Perhaps their most similar trait however, is the heroic strength with which the two men are imbued by some higher power. Samson and Superman both share a divine gift but that gift is vulnerable to attack. If they allow their enemy to discover their weakness, their physical strength and in turn, their life is compromised. For Achilles it was his heel. For Superman it was kryptonite. For Samson it was the razors edge.
For Achilles it was his heel. For Superman it was kryptonite. For Samson it was the razors edge.
This story is an interesting one because the focal point seems to be the physical prowess of our problematic propagandist. While our tradition does indeed prize physical health and care for our bodies, physical strength has rarely been a particularly Jewish value.
From our earliest days of peoplehood, the Israelites and then the Jewish people are marginalized by stronger and mightier people. Again and again, it is our relationship with God and our commitment to our covenant and our faith that helps us rise up over our oppressors. We are rooted deeply in a narrative that demonstrates the ability of the weak to overtake the strong with the help of God and the power of Torah.
The story of Samson seems to turn that theme on its head. Samson’s body may have been strong, but his will and his judgement were weak. His physical strength was rendered meaningless in the face of his inability to control his impulses and use moral and ethical judgement. Throughout his story Samson makes… lets say… questionable relationship choices. He is seduced by women in the enemy camp and becomes gravely distracted. Ultimately, he falls in love with a Philistine woman named Delilah, who devises a scheme with the leaders of her people to seduce Samson and find out the secret to his powerful strength. When she does, she secretly allows a Philistine man into his tent and the soldier cuts Samson’s hair, rendering him powerless and he is ultimately, taken prisoner.
Following the destruction of the Temple, our people were scattered from Jerusalem to the four corners of the earth. We live in what some would call “the diaspora” and have survived not on our ability to defeat the communities in which we dwelled, but to remain independent and when necessary, deferential to the more powerful and sometimes, morally bankrupt societies that have surrounded us. It was not until the creation of the state of Israel that the idea of physical strength in addition to a moral and ethical prowess began to rise to prominence.
It was not until the creation of the state of Israel that the idea of physical strength in addition to a moral and ethical prowess began to rise to prominence.
In the early days of Zionism, the image of the Jew began to transform from a young student in a yarmulke with books in his hand to a strapping, strong tiller of the land. The concept of “the New Jew” became important to the Zionist project as it re-conceptualized what Jewish identity meant and brought to the forefront the importance of physical vitality alongside moral and ethical strength.
It makes sense right? After centuries of persecution and suffering, after generations in the shtetls and then ghetto, the Jewish people were a group that had suffered at the hands of bullies. They were ready not only to fight back but to take responsibility for their own strength and to assert that strength to the world.
After centuries of persecution and suffering, after generations in the shtetls and then ghetto, the Jewish people were a group that had suffered at the hands of bullies. They were ready not only to fight back but to take responsibility for their own strength and to assert that strength to the world.
Theodor Herzl wrote, “We are an association of citizens who are trying to find their happiness in work and cultural activities. We are satisfied with making and keeping our youth physically fit…Once Jewish children were weak. [...] Look at them today! [...] We brought these children from dank cellars and slums into the light of day! Plants die without sunlight, and so do human beings (Herzl 1960:62).” In changing the perception, not for others but themselves, Jews in the New State of Israel were able to perceive themselves not as the weak or the victim, but as a strong vital force in covenant with the land, with God and with our history.
In changing the perception, not for others but themselves, Jews in the New State of Israel were able to perceive themselves not as the weak or the victim, but as a strong vital force in covenant with the land, with God and with our history.
Not much actually changed. The people, the values, the teachings, the Torah, the history we share. All of it remained the same. But in changing the self perception of what it meant to be a Jew, it gave the early Israeli’s the strength to see themselves as a mighty force capable building the Jewish homeland of which we had always dreamed.
Today, despite her small size, and her dangerous surroundings, Israel is one of the strongest nations in the world and her army, a pillar of Israel’s strength, adheres to a string moral and ethical code in order to wield that strength with respect for human dignity, remembering that all humans are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.
The story of Samson closes in a moment of high drama. The text reads that “Samson, afire with anger and pain, invoked the name of God saying, "Adonai, give me strength just this once. Let me avenge myself on these cruel Philistines that they may know that you are the only God. It doesn’t matter if I die with them!" And once again, even without his long Nazirite hair, he felt the spirit of G‑d in him. With one mighty heave, Samson tore the pillars to which he was shackled down. The next instant, the walls and the roof came crashing down, and not a single soul survived.
The Our sages repeatedly have taught that mental, moral and spiritual strength is our loftiest goal and while we have had examples of mighty warriors in our tradition, it is certainly not the highest aspiration and perhaps the story of Samson teaches us why. Samson believed in the tradition of the Nazirim. He believed that when his locks were cut, his strength too was lost. It was not until he was able to shift his perspective and call out to God, humbling himself before the Divine asking for strength not for himself but in order to defend his people and his God. Samson was finally able to see himself clearly and in doing so, God granted him his strength once again. Or perhaps it was there all along. Perhaps the strength was inside of him and his unwillingness to honor the gift he had been given through his behavior and his choices were the stumbling blocks that in fact, stood in his way.
To quote another Superhero creator, Stan Lee “with great power comes great responsibility.” There is a great moral obligation that comes along with being strong. Whether your strength is physical, mental, monetary, or otherwise, when something you possess makes you stronger than other people, you have a choice. You can use that strength to enact goodness and bring peace to the world, you can use it to wield power over others, or you can choose to squander it as Samson almost did.
To quote another Superhero creator, Stan Lee “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Rav Simcha Bunim Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: "For my sake was the world created." But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: "I am but dust and ashes.
Our sages wanted us to remember that it is both our responsibility to recognize what makes us strong and cultivate that strength in order to empower ourselves and the world. And yet, it is also our grave responsibility to walk the fine line of humility that allows us to see our strength clearly and humble ourselves before God and indeed, before one another.