Today’s daf (Nedarim 9b) tells a story that calls for further explanation.
We begin with Shimon HaTzaddik who was a Kohen Gadol for 40 years and who attests to the fact that ‘in all my days’ (i.e. all the while that I was a Kohen Gadol), I refrained from eating the Asham offering of a Nazir who had contact with the dead, with just one exception which he then relates.
To give some context to this story, and as recorded by Gershom Bader in his ‘The Jewish Spiritual Heroes’ (Vol. 1 p. 49), during the lifetime of Shimon HaTzaddik (circa 3rd century BCE) there was a sharp increase of those who indulged in extravagant living. In response and in opposition to this, a movement developed of Jews who committed themselves to become Nazirites and thereby renounce various worldly pleasures.
Significantly, and notwithstanding his own personal piety, Shimon HaTzaddik disapproved of this ‘Nazir movement’. This is because he felt that such asceticism is not what someone should choose to do, and because many of those who did so had simply made this choice as a push-back to more extravagant trends in society rather than as an expression of their personal religious devotion. Consequently, seemingly also as a form of protest, he refrained from eating the Asham offerings of Nezirim at the time. But then Shimon HaTzaddik then met one Nazir ‘from the south’.
Interestingly, many of our commentators attempt to make sense of why this detail of ‘from the south’ is mentioned. In my opinion, I believe that this comes to tell us how this man was not part of the above-mentioned ‘Nazir movement’. Instead, he lived in the south, away from this particular group of people. And then the story, as told by Shimon HaTzaddik, continues:
‘I saw that [this Nazir] had beautiful eyes and was good looking, and the fringes of his hair were arranged in curls. I said to him: “My son, what did you see [that made you decide] to destroy this beautiful hair of yours [by becoming a Nazirite, which then requires that one shave off his hair at the completion of the Nazirite period]?” He said to me, “I was a shepherd for my father in my city, and I went to draw water from the spring, and I looked at my reflection in the water and my evil inclination quickly overcame me and sought to expel me from the world. I said to myself: Wicked one! Why do you pride yourself in a world that is not yours? Why are you proud of someone who will eventually be food in the grave for worms and maggots? I swear by the Temple service that I shall shave you for the sake of Heaven (שאגלחך לשמים)”. In response, Shimon HaTzaddik then relates how, “I immediately arose and kissed him on his head. I said to him: My son, may there be more who take vows of naziriteship like you among the Jewish people. About you the verse states: “When either a man or a woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a nazirite, to consecrate himself to the Lord” (Bemidbar 6:2)”.
Clearly, what this story comes to teach us is that, amidst the rise of this questionable ‘Nazir movement’ which Shimon HaTzaddik disapproved of, he also met someone who made the decision to become a Nazir for the sake of heaven (לשם שמים), and though this story clearly indicates how Shimon HaTzaddik questioned the choice of this individual becoming a Nazir, it also highlights how he was inspired by the sincerity of this individual. What this comes to show us is that, while many people who often adopt strictures primarily or purely for social or cultural reasons, we should not forget that there can still be some people who adopt certain strictures, rightly or wrongly, for sincere reasons.
However, there is one more detail that I would like to address, because notwithstanding all the lessons being taught in this story – including how this Nazir spoke to himself by asking, “Why do you pride yourself in a world that is not yours?” – we are not actually told who Shimon HaTzaddik was addressing when he told this story. Given this, I would like to posit that this story of this Nazir who spoke to himself was related by Shimon HaTzaddik who, though perhaps being overheard by other scholars, was fundamentally speaking to himself. And why was Shimon HaTzaddik telling himself this story? Because he felt the need to remind himself that, notwithstanding the fact that many people adopt religious practices to make social statements and as a form of social currency, we should never forget that there are sincere people in the world whose dedication to God and divine service should be a source of inspiration to us all.