March 29, 2023

Nazir 19

A few days ago I read an article (see summarizing a recent study (see about the enormous sacrifices that female orcas make for their sons. This study, exploring what is known as ‘parental investment’, shed’s light on a phenomenon whose scale has only recently been understood following a 20-year research project. And having read this research – though specific to killer whales, and even more specific given that it focusses on the mother-son dynamic – I paused to reflect on the concept of ‘parental investment’ and on the efforts that parents go to in order to raise and care for their children. And then, as I was reading the Mishna (Nazir 3:6) in today’s daf (Nazir 19b), I was reminded of this study.
To give some context, Hilni was a righteous convert from the Adiabene royal family who converted at around 30ce and who subsequently lived in Jerusalem. Aside from this fact, we are told that Hilni had seven sons, and that she was very affluent. As Mishna Yoma 3:10 details, Hilni was a major philanthropist who made significant donations to the Temple. Beyond this, she was actively involved in providing food to those in need during the famine of 45-46ce.
In terms of Hilni as a mother, we are taught in Sukkah 2b that Hilni built a huge Sukkah as part of her endeavours to educate her sons. And though the Sages took issue with the halachic validity of the dimensions of Hilni’s sukkah, they were greatly inspired by the efforts that she went to in order to raise children who were Torah observant.
Yet it is in the Mishna in today’s daf where Hilni demonstrates a whole different level of dedication to her children where we read that when her son went out to war, Hilni made a promise to herself that if he were to return in peace, she would be a Nazirah for seven years.
Of course, a reasonable question – which is certainly worthy of its own examination – is the correlation between the religious commitments of parents and their impact on the health and welfare of their children. Still, the key point here is that not only is this what Hilni did, but that due to the technical reasons detailed in the Mishna, Hilni ended up being a Nazirah for either 14 years and one month (according to the interpretation of Rabbi Yehuda), or for 21 years (according to the interpretation of Beit Hillel).
And so, when I read about this choice of Hilni, which led her to self-deprive for so many years, I was then reminded of the article I read earlier this week about ‘parental investment’. And while we would all agree, at least in theory, that parents should practice self-care and avoid doing things that lead to significant deprivation for the sake of their children, I suspect that all of us can think of parents whom we know – perhaps even including our own parents, or perhaps even ourselves– who denied things for themselves for the sake of their children. Yes, Hilni was a great philanthropist. But beyond the money that she gave for the sake of others, she gave so much of herself for the sake of her children.
Before I end I would like to mention two sets of parents who were on my mind over Shabbat. This is because, just a few hours before Shabbat, another terrorist attack struck the heart of Jerusalem. And so, as Shabbat entered, and having read how 20-year-old Alter Shlomo Lederman, who had married just a few months ago, was among those murdered, I was thinking about his parents, his wife, and his extended family. Beyond this, I was also thinking about the mother of 6-year-old Yaakov Paley whose son was murdered and whose husband and two other children were hospitalized due to their injuries. Sadly, as Shabbat went out in Israel, we were informed that Yaakov’s 8-year-old brother, Menachem Asher, also died.
In this instance I don’t know either family. Nevertheless, as we learn from the Mishna in today’s daf, parents will go to the ends of the earth to protect their children. And so, when terrorists take the lives of any person, and especially of children, the pain is indescribable.
Still, notwithstanding my ache for these families, I would like to end on a different key as I had the opportunity this morning to hold a month-old baby girl who is the niece of my neighbour. And as I did I didn’t just marvel at the gift of life, but also at the concept of ‘parental investment’ and all that will be done to keep her safe, to educate her, and to bring joy to her life. Yes, we should mourn life. But even when we do we shouldn’t forget the gift that is life, and all that we do for those we love.
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