Light from the Sidra

Nasso ('Lift up') 29th May 2015. 12th Sivan 5775

Torah: Numbers 4:27-7:89. Haftarah: Judges 13:2-25.

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


Hair today, gone tommorow

How fashions change. For guys like me it’s embarrassing to look back at photos taken back in the 1960s and 1970s when we were letting our ‘freak flags’ fly. Personally, I made no concession fashion-wise to the seventies, eighties and nineties until I finally sold out to the system around ten years ago and cut my thinning hair. Today, men go to the other extreme and shave their heads. Of course, there are reasons why the fashions change, and our hairstyles say something about us. They are statements. Back in the sixties and seventies we grew our hair long because we were against conformity and convention. We were ‘different.’ That’s why we all had long hair! Today, a guy with a shaved head is telling you he’s ‘well ’ard.’

In ancient Israel, some men grew their hair long but not as a fashion statement; they wanted to be holy. They were called Nazarites.

Israel as a nation was – and still is – holy and separate to HASHEM but within the nation there were degrees of holiness. HASHEM called Abraham out of the nations for the purpose of blessing the nations but within Israel there were certain people who were more holy than others. These were people who were set apart for particular work, the holiest of whom was the High Priest, followed by the priests and Levites in that order. But a man or a woman could devote themselves to God for a certain period of time and, when they did, they took a vow not to cut their hair, not to drink alcohol or even to eat grapes, to avoid contact with a dead body, even members of their family. If they broke any of those conditions before their vow expired they had to offer sacrifices in the tabernacle, ritually cleanse themselves and start the vow from scratch. At the end of the period of the vow, the Nazarite would again purify himself (or herself) and offer a variety of sacrifices. Taking a Nazarite vow was a serious and expensive business.

In the Hebrew Scriptures there are two outstanding Nazarites. The first was Samuel who was set apart by his mother as a perpetual Nazarite after God answered her prayer for a son. She dedicated him to HASHEM and, so far as we can tell, Samuel never violated his mother’s vow.

The more famous Nazarite by far was Samson. Before his birth he was set apart by God but as an adult he broke all the Nazarite conditions. He killed a lion and ate honey from its carcass, he ate grapes and no doubt drank wine at the parties in which he participated with the Philistines. Finally, his hair was cut.

Samson was born at a time when Israel was an apostate nation. Instead of obeying Torah, everyone in Israel was doing what they thought was right. But according to the book of Judges, what was right in the eyes of the Israelites was evil in the eyes of God and as a judge, Samson was called by God to represent Israel; to be everything the nation should have been but was not.

Samson was Israel’s saviour. Israel’s armies were powerless against the Philistines but God endued Samson with the strength of an army so he was able to defeat the thousands of Israel’s enemies armed with nothing but the jawbone of a donkey. In the end, the remaining vestige of his holiness was taken away after he revealed the secret of his phenomenal strength to his Philistine girlfriend. The result was that he ended up blind, in prison and an object of Philistine scorn.

But in the Gaza prison, blind and weak, Samson’s hair grew. He regained his strength not by working out but by the grace of God. Samson failed HASHEM but HASHEM did not fail Samson or Israel. In the Philistine jail, there were no dead bodies to pollute him, no grapes, no wine and no women to tempt him. Samson once again became holy and, as Israel’s representative, accomplished more in his death than in his life.

For Jewish people who still believe in the coming of the Messiah, the story of Samson contains a lesson. The general Jewish view is that the Messiah will redeem Israel when Israel is worthy but nothing could be further from the truth. In the Bible, God invariably saves Israel when Israel is unworthy. HASHEM sent saviours when the nation was as far away from him as it was possible for them to be. God did not demand that the people get their act together before he saved them. The book of Judges is marked by a cyclical pattern that goes like this: the people sin; they suffer the consequences; they make supplication; God sends salvation.

When God sent Samson, the people betrayed him into the hands of the Philistines who imprisoned him, mocked him and made a public spectacle of him. But Samson’s greatest humiliation became his moment of glory in which he delivered Israel from their enemies.

Here we see a picture of the Messiah, who was holy in every way and set apart by God for the purpose of saving Israel. In the Gospels of the New Testament, a corrupt temple aristocracy handed Jesus the Messiah over to Israel’s enemies for humiliation and death. On trial before the Roman governor, Jesus calmly informed Pontius Pilate that he had no power over him. The Romans could not take Jesus’ life from him. He would willingly lay down his own life in obedience to his Father by stretching out his arms like Samson, and by so doing he would save Israel. Like Samson, but to an infinitely greater degree, Jesus the Messiah represented Israel by doing what they could not do for themselves: saving them from the greatest enemy of all, Sin.

The greatest contrast between Samson and Jesus was that after laying down his life, Jesus took it back again three days later. Samson’s bones have long since crumbled to dust and he is remembered as a mighty but flawed Jewish superhero. Jesus, on the other hand, lives in the power of his resurrection life ready and able to save all who trust him.

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