(Judges 13:2 -25)
June 2, 2001
Samson does not easily fit the definition of the “Nazir” as described in the Torah. The Parashah describes the “Nazir” as a person who voluntarily vows to abstain from all food and from drink derived from grapes, to refrain from cutting his or her hair and to keep from coming into contact with the dead, in order to achieve a closer relationship with God (Numbers 6:1-11). The Nazirite vows are for a limited period of time. Samson’s vow, on the other hand, was imposed upon him by his mother, at the behest of a divine messenger, before he was born and extended through his entire lifetime.
“An angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘You are barren and have borne no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son. Now be careful not to drink wine or other intoxicant, or to eat anything unclean… let no razor touch his head, for the boy is to be a nazirite to God from the womb on. He shall be the first to redeem Israel from the Philistines’”. (Judges 13: 3-5 NJPS translation)
Since Samson’s vow was not voluntary what was achieved by this special status? Samson was a heroic figure but also a tragic figure. The Talmud records the following observation about the nature of human beings: “Anyone who is greater than his fellow, his appetites (urges) are also greater”. (adapted from Sukkah 42a) His role as “savior of Israel” was offset by his inability to exhibit any sense of self-control. The Ralbag, a 13th – 14th century French philosopher and commentator, asserted that God was aware of Samson’s volatile nature and attempted to temper his behavior through the regimen of the “Nazir”. The abstinence from wine and the other prohibitions imposed upon him were God’s attempt to teach Samson holiness and restraint from worldly excesses.
These measures, however, were inadequate to curb Samson’s excesses or prevent his consequent downfall. He seems to have been callous to the message of his own education. He ignored the self restraint which his life long regiment should have inspired in him. Sadly, Samson was the master of his own heroic characteristics but also the master of his own downfall. Despite his heroic behavior and his God given gifts he is a character worthy of pity rather than respect – a moral lesson rather than a hero.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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