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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Naso, Bamidbar 6:2. Narcissus and Nezirus

In the Greek myth, a young man, Narcissus, was punished by the gods for spurning someone's consuming romantic attraction (innamorato in the Greek version, innamorata in the Roman.)  He was guided to a pond and he looked into the water and saw his own reflection.  He was awed and entranced by his beauty, and because he could not possibly attain the object of his desire, he died of sorrow (or killed himself) as he gazed at his reflection.

In the Gemara (Nedarim 9b), we have the following story:
 אמר <רבי> שמעון הצדיק מימי לא אכלתי אשם נזיר טמא אלא אחד פעם אחת בא אדם אחד נזיר מן הדרום וראיתיו שהוא יפה עינים וטוב רואי וקווצותיו סדורות לו תלתלים אמרתי לו בני מה ראית להשחית את שערך זה הנאה אמר לי רועה הייתי לאבא בעירי הלכתי למלאות מים מן המעיין ונסתכלתי בבבואה שלי ופחז עלי יצרי ובקש לטורדני מן העולם אמרתי לו רשע למה אתה מתגאה בעולם שאינו שלך במי שהוא עתיד להיות רמה ותולעה העבודה שאגלחך לשמים מיד עמדתי ונשקתיו על ראשו אמרתי לו בני כמוך ירבו נוזרי נזירות בישראל עליך הכתוב אומר (במדבר ו) איש כי יפליא לנדור נדר נזיר להזיר לה' 

There was once a young man who saw his reflection in the water, and he realized how extraordinarily handsome he was.  His Yetzer Hara suddenly assaulted him and attempted to drive him away from this world.  He said "Villain!  Of what are you so proud in a world that is not yours, of a body that is fated to decompose into mold and vermin?  I swear by the Holy Worship of the Temple that I will shave you bald in service
of Heaven" and thus declared himself a Nazir.  The story of his nezirus was presented by Shimon the Kohen Gadol as the ideal, the paragon, of holy Nezirus.

Each of of these stories teaches us that vanity and excessive love of self is destructive.

If, after a little consideration, you still think the moral significance of the two stories harmonize, then, well, you need to work a little on your analytic skills.  Despite the superficial similarity, the subtexts of the two stories are diametrically opposed.

The most obvious difference is that in the Greek version, Narcissus' fate was sealed because he displeased the gods by spurning someone who loved, or lusted after, him, whereas in the story of the Nazir, he was innocently taking care of his father's sheep.  More importantly, the Greek version does not contemplate the option of aceticism in dealing with sensual urges; His selfish refusal to gratify his lovers' desire was punished by making him feel what his disconsolate lovers felt, and this sealed his doom.  In the story of the Nazir, the impulses engendered by his amazement at his beauty were countered by an awareness of the infantilism and self-destructiveness of those feelings, with the life-saving antidote of becoming a Nazir.  But most importantly, in the Greek story, the tragedy is the unwillingness to satisfy desire, and the punishment came through the creation of a desire that was impossible to satisfy.  In the Jewish story, satisfying desire would have been the tragedy, and the triumph was overcoming desire.

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