Throughout the term of his vow as Nazirite, no razor shall touch his head; it shall remain consecrated until the completion of his term as Nazirite of the Lord, the hair of his head being left to grow untrimmed. (Numbers 6:5)
Before my 9-year-old-daughter, Anna, was conceived, I was filled with a biblical longing to have a child. When I pictured the landscape deep inside of me, I imagined it as utterly barren.
At Anna’s naming ceremony, I remembered Hannah, mother of Samuel — Hannah, whose infertility led to desperation and whose desperation infused prayer with a passion previously unknown. Hannah prayed with her heart, moving only her lips and epitomizing the words of the poet Yehuda Amichai. “I declare with perfect faith/That prayer preceded God./ Prayer created God,/ God created human beings,/human beings create prayers/that create God that creates human beings.” We are locked in a fervent cycle of dependency with God. The old priest Eli initially mistook Hannah as drunk and moved to throw her out of the temple. Instead she left with his blessing for peace and fertility.
Hannah was blessed with a son, Samuel, whom she dedicated to the Lord as a Nazirite. In the pecking order of service to God, there are the priests and their faithful assistants in the temple, the Levites. Then there are the rest, the people of Israel, we who overslept on the morning of the revelation at Mount Sinai — the anxious, complaining travelers in the wilderness. But there were a select few among the Israelites who explicitly “utter[ed] a Nazirite vow to set himself apart for the Lord,” earning a special place in the community. In lieu of the priesthood that was an inherited position, Nazirism was a democratic opportunity to lead a life as reverent and noble as that of the priest — a life framed by prayer, abstention from alcohol, strict avoidance of a corpse and hair that was not to be cut.
According to the text, the ancient Nazirite could fulfill his vows only in the land of Israel. But we in the Diaspora are endlessly adaptable and creative. Anna worked out a way to bring aspects of the purity and the piety of Nazirism into her world. She did it with the help of Jocey, who was the first among her friends to grow her hair long and then donate it to Locks of Love.
In kindergarten, Anna had learned to braid hair on Jocey’s straight black locks. At the end of second grade, Jocey’s hair went off to Locks of Love in Lake Worth, Fla., where it was used for children who had lost hair to serious illness, unlucky genetics or emotional distress. Ten inches is the minimum amount of hair that can be donated. Anything less is unusable to make a wig. It was then that Anna’s Nazirism began in earnest. For more than a year, we combed our way through Gordian knots, occasional wads of chewing gum and bad-hair days. We straightened and measured Anna’s curly tresses.
The Bible instructs, “On the day that his term as Nazirite is completed, he shall be brought to the entrance of the Tent of the Meeting.” At the hair salon, it took two people to untangle Anna’s hair. They combed and brushed and divided her honey-colored waves into five ponytails. By the time the third ponytail was gathered and tied, Anna’s haircut had become an event. To the right and to the left, the haircuts in progress slowed to a standstill. Everyone stopped to watch the little girl who was cutting off most of her hair for people she would never meet.
One ponytail was cut off, then another and another. Five ponytails in all, bundled and zip locked in a plastic bag. “…[the Nazirite shall] take the locks of his consecrated hair,” says Numbers 6:18 in this week’s portion, Naso, “and put them of the fire that is under the sacrifice of well-being.”
The applause at the end soothed my girl. The tough realization that most of her hair was in a bag ready to be mailed to Florida came several hours later. Anna scrutinized her haircut. She didn’t like it. It did not matter that her father told her that her blue eyes looked bluer. It did not matter that her grandmother told her how thrilling it was to see more of her pretty face. Anna had a classic case of haircut depression.
In Hebrew, the word to set oneself apart is yafli — yud-pey-lamed-aleph. The medieval Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra parses the word and points out that the root pey-lamed-hey spells wonder. He allies these words through the action of the Nazirite, which he explains is “a wonder because most people in the world act in accordance with their desires and lusts, and this person acted in exactly the opposite way: forbidding himself that which the Torah permitted.” It is a joy to watch my child rejoice in what the Torah permits. It is wondrous to see her limit that joy for the sake of others.
Judy Bolton-Fasman is at work on a memoir about saying Kaddish for her father.