From Discipline to Death Wish: The Warning Tale of Bloodthirsty Samson — D’var Torah for Parashat Naso

Published May 21, 2021
Aryeh Bernstein speaking with his hand raised outward

This week’s parasha teaches the laws of the Nazirite, a person who takes a vow of selective abstinence, separating from death and from certain pleasures of the flesh — wine and liquor and other grape products and haircuts — in order to achieve a more intense experience of closeness with God (Bemidbar/Numbers 6:1-21). The haftara pairs our parasha with the beginning of the story of ultra-nazirite strongman Shimshon (Samson), who performed superhuman feats of physical strength and violence against the Philistines, with whom Israel was engaged in seemingly endless war. What is the nazirite vow about, how do nazirite laws interact with the Samson story, and what lessons should we learn from them today?

Biblical scholars such as Jacob Milgrom point out the similarities between nazirites and kohanim/priests, both charged with being “holy to God” (Bemidbar/Numbers 6:8 for the nazirite, VaYikra/Leviticus 21:6 for kohanim; NJPS Torah Commentary, Bemidbar, Excursus 11). While kohanim are a caste by birth, with only male participation, and for their whole lifetimes, nazirite vows are open to all people, of all genders, to experience and model demarcated periods of time of heightened holiness and closeness to God. Nazirites, opting into their priest-like experience, actually take on greater restrictions than those imposed on kohanim: while kohanim may not drink alcohol while serving in the Temple (VaYikra/Leviticus 10:9), nazirites may not drink at all throughout the duration of their nazirite vow. The nazirite must also completely avoid contact with the dead, even for relatives, a restriction applied only to the High Priest; ordinary priests must avoid contact with the dead, but may bury their own relatives (VaYikra/Leviticus 21). The priestly caste’s constant task of affirmation of life over death is a more intense practice of what all Jews are commanded, as we are commanded to be “a regime of priests and a holy nation” (Sh’mot/Exodus 19:6, the introduction to Revelation at Mt. Sinai). A nazirite vow enables an ordinary Israelite to experience, for a period of time, an intensification of the core purpose of Jewish, spiritual life. A nazirite vow can help someone who struggles with their appetitive urges to get in better alignment long-term with healthy appetitive and spiritual habits. In this way, it may be like dietary cleanses, silent meditation retreats, the 30-day anti-racism challenge, or other short-term intense practices that people take on an intense practice for a set period in order to help themselves align their regular life practices with their purpose and values. Heightened short-term discipline enables more heightened discipline and holiness in the long term.  

Our haftarah introduces a more radical form of nazirite vow, a lifelong commitment for a divinely chosen child, even before conception: 

“The Israelites continued, again, to do evil in the eyes of YHWH, so YHWH gave them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years. Now, there was a certain man from Tzorah, of the stock of Dan, whose name was Manoah [ie, ‘rest’]. His wife was barren and had borne no children. An angel of YHWH 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 intoxicant, nor to eat anything impure. For you are going to conceive and bear a son; 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 deliver Israel from the Philistines” (Judges 13:1-5). 

Context is crucial here: the whole book of Judges is a steady disintegration of the morality of the people. The Israelites continuing to do evil is a refrain marking each episode in the book, and Israel is caught in a cycle of depravity and violence with the Philistines. From the beginning of the book, God repeatedly chooses a “judge” (more like a military leader) to save the people (Judges 2:16-19), but they never repent and with each episode, the judge is more corrupt than the previous. Samson is the last of the “judges”, toward the catastrophic end of the bloody book.

The story reads as dark satire: right off the bat, the unnamed mother who was literally spoken to by a divine angel, profoundly misses the point of the charge when she relates her experience to her dim-witted and unbelieving husband: 

“The woman went and told her husband, ‘A man of God came to me; he looked like an angel of God, very frightening. I did not ask him where he was from, nor did he tell me his name. He said to me: ‘You are going to conceive and bear a son. Drink no wine or other intoxicant, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy is to be a nazirite to God from the womb to the day of his death’” (Judges 13:6-7). For the angel, the purpose of the lifelong nazirite commitment was to save Israel from the cycle of violence. His Israelite mother maintains the laws, misses the purpose, and injects, perhaps, a death-wish. 

For the rest of the four chapters of this story, Samson plays out that farcical and tragic misunderstanding of the purpose of the nazirite life. Though he abstains from wine and haircuts, Samson’s entire life is the aggressive, violent, and narcissistic fulfillment of impulsive appetitive desires: conquering and possessing Philistine women, making impetuous bets, abusing animals, burning Philistine olive groves, slaughtering people who outwit him, cross him, or are standing in his way: so much bloodshed, without any indication from the text that the Jewish people became safer through his steadily escalating violence. Philistine strongmen escalate their counter-aggression and civilian blood flows over the Land of Israel like a mighty, toxic stream. In the words of Nechama Leibowitz, “But with all his loyalty to his Nazirite vows he did not conduct himself like the Nazirite of God, like the man charged with the Divine mission of saving Israel. He wasted all his strength on vanities and the repaying of personal scores. Abstention from drink and shaving are purely external signs of the Nazirite. But they alone cannot make a saint” (Studies in Bamidbar, 1980, Naso 7, pp. 84-85). 

By the end, we find Samson, weakened, humiliated, blinded, and enslaved, after his Philistine wife Delilah predictably betrayed his worthless word, cut his hair, making him lose his superhuman strength, and turned him over to the Philistine military, who gouged his eyes out and enslaved him in prison. But he still never discovers his divine purpose of salvation and safety from violence. In the climactic horror scene, when he’s been made to dance for sport before his enemies in the coliseum, he grasps the pillars and offers the only prayer of his life:

“O, Lord, YHWH! Please remember me, and give me strength just this once, O God, to take revenge on the Philistines, if only for one of my two eyes” (Judges 16:29). Re-endowed with strength, he pulls down the pillars, shouting “Let me die with the Philistines!” (Judges 16:30), collapses the arena, killing thousands and thousands of people. Our leader, Samson, the first suicide bomber, reaches his climax not in making the Jewish people any safer, but only inflicting carnage, death, and destruction upon the Philistines as he dies himself. The extent of his vision is death. War continues.

Some early Christian sages read Samson as a hero, even a prefiguring of Jesus, dying as a martyr on the cross. Early modern European Christian composers and Russian Christian artists created performance and sculpture celebrating Samson as a tragic hero. Twentieth century Christian authors have even written popular children’s comic books about Samson as a superhero. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the intellectual father of contemporary, right-wing Jewish nationalism (known as Revisionist Zionism), followed these European Christian trends in writing an historical fiction novel about Samson, re-imagining him as a Hebrew warrior hero. In his footsteps, Samson has been embraced as a muscular Jewish superhero in much Jewish education, in Israel and in the Diaspora, in recent decades. The Kahanist Israeli songwriter Dov Shurin’s biggest hit, his 1996 Hasidic Rock song “Zokhreni Na”, sets Samson’s death wish prayer, to enact vengeance on the Philistines, as a triumphant dance song. Over the past 25 years, this song has become wildly popular, first in religious settlements in the West Bank, and by now, much more broadly, with many people changing the word Philistines to Palestinians. Some religious Zionist leaders have tried to ban it, but that ship has mostly sailed; just a few weeks ago, videos circulated of throngs of religious Zionist celebrants singing it as an anthem of vengeance during the clashes in East Jerusalem and while a fire from errant fireworks burned on the al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Samson’s death wish, his narrow vision of making sure the other side dies as we do, is a hero song to many contemporary Jews.

This phenomenon is, shall we say, very surprising in light of Samson’s legacy in Rabbinic Judaism, which views Samson as a villain. The first chapter of Mishna Sotah lists characters who were punished or rewarded “measure for measure”. “Samson followed his eyes, so the Philistines gouged his eyes out” (1:8). Samson deserved what he got according to the Mishna. He’s paired with another violent Biblical villain, David’s son Avshalom, and contrasted with Miriam, Yosef, and Moshe, who received rewards commensurate with their good deeds. The Mishna’s more elaborate parallel text, the Tosefta, adds other characters to the rogues’ gallery with Samson and Avshalom, including the generation destroyed by the Flood, the generation of the Tower of Babel, the men of Sodom, the Egyptians, the Philistine General Sisera (killed by Ya‘el), Assyrian King Sancherib, who exiled the Israelite Northern Kingdom, Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the First Temple and ravaged and exiled the Jews (Tosefta Sotah 3:2-19): all of them, like Samson, were punished harshly and got what was coming to them. For Rabbinic Judaism, Samson is a signature example of how not to act. The fact that Samson was selected by God and given strength by God does not lead the Rabbis to see him as a hero; on the contrary, those facts amplify his wickedness, as he perverted and reversed the purpose of his nazirite commitments into a life of violence and conquest for their own sake.

The laws of the nazirite remind us that sometimes, some of us need extra boosts of commitment to do our part of affirming life. The haftarah warns us how wrong that can go if our intense practices are not hitched to their purpose. Choose life, choose life, choose life.

Shabbat shalom.

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