How I yearn to just talk about cicadas.
I just wanted to joke about my introduction to Baltimore, having moved here 17 years ago with no warning about these creatures and just woke up one morning to a swarm of them outside my dorm. I was hoping, this Shabbos, especially in light of a ceasefire, to talk about something mundane, something that doesn’t touch upon questions of our existence. But alas, G-d has different plans.
When Jews are attacked eating sushi in LA, when Jews are harassed on the streets of New York in broad daylight, when an elderly Jew is beaten by a mob in Toronto, how could we talk about cicadas? How could we talk about anything else?
When incident after incident goes unreported in major news agencies, when we hear crickets, not the roar of cicadas, after Jewish violence goes unchecked, how could we allow ourselves to be distracted by bugs?
And yet, I keep coming back to cicadas. Not because they’re littering my lawn with their shells, not because my children are afraid of them, but because their life is really not so different than ours.
They sleep, they wake up, they mate, and then they die. Their legacy gets perpetuated by another generation that does the exact same thing. The scenery changes; bigger houses, nicer cars, faster internet, but it’s the same story over and over and over again.
We fight the same battles every cycle – my great-grandparents defended themselves against Cossacks, my grandparents outsmarted the Nazis, my parents fought Arabs, and we fight… I don’t even know who we’re fighting, but fighting we are. Every 17 years a battle, a struggle, an attempt to just breathe without having to look over our shoulder. Is there a victor? No! If one enemy crumbles, a new one steps in to take their place. We attempt to escape this vicious cycle but it’s futile.
And like the cicadas, after our time here on earth, we leave. And after a little while, no one really remembers that we were here.
In what way will we leave the world a different place from the one we entered? A stone here, a plaque there… dust in the wind. “All we are is dust in the wind.”
The only difference between us and the cicadas is that we are capable of recognizing how fleeting and pointless life can be, whereas the cicadas are blissfully unaware. Although here too, most humans prefer to dull their mind to this reality because it’s just too painful. Like the cicadas who make themselves deaf to their own noise, we too make ourselves deaf to the cries of our soul.
But there is one creature that cannot tolerate this vanilla-pointless-cyclical life. There is one creature whose soul is bursting at the seams and cannot bear the thought of “from dust you are formed and to dust you will return.” There is one creature who separates him or herself from the swarm, and that is the Nazir, the Nazirite.
Writes Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein: “Naziriteship is a spiritual process based on primal energies and ecstasies deeply implanted in the human soul.”
“Generally speaking, the Torah creates for us an orderly and systematic spiritual world, one that is based on the development of man’s intellectual and emotional strengths, and on the rational and structured use of these strengths. The world of mitzvot is characterized by spiritual discipline and the channeling of personal strengths through study and action. Naziriteship, on the other hand, is based on the primal energies dwelling in man’s soul. A nazirite is identified by his long hair, and his holiness is expressed by the fact that he allows his hair to grow wild:”
In other words, the Nazir is not content with the orderly, structured life. He rejects the world that he is born into, namely, the world of Monoach, a world of calm and serenity – also the name of the father of Shimshon, the ultimate Nazir. He or she, like Shimshon, fight a battle that they cannot win. But the alternative, that of doing nothing, that is a far greater loss.
Rabbi Lichtenstein makes an additional observation about the Nazir; when someone accepts to be a Nazir, the default amount of time they are to remain a Nazir is thirty days. In his words: “In contrast to the priest whose holiness is everlasting, the nazirite’s holiness is temporary (Nazir 7:1). This assertion is not only true in the practical sense; but rather it defines the quality and nature of the nazirite’s holiness. By its very nature as an expression of explosive and bursting forces, it is limited in time, for excitement wanes and routine takes control of life. The nazirite whose spiritual ascendancy is based on this eruptive quality is not built for a long-term process, and therefore, his holiness is defined by its very nature as temporary holiness.”
The Nazir is under no illusion; he or she knows that we cannot escape our mortality. It is precisely that awareness that drives the Nazir to, from time to time, explode. Through that explosion of spiritual energy, the Nazir reminds us that we can escape meaninglessness and the humdrum of the cyclical unchanging life. Through that explosion of spiritual energy, the Nazir reminds us that, like Shimshon, we don’t need to win the war – we cannot win the war, but the alternative of doing nothing at all, of living and dying,, accepting that is untenable, and not a life worth living. Through that explosion of spiritual energy, the Nazir reminds us that there is holiness and meaning in short-lived outbursts of spirituality.
Rashi, in this week’s parsha, teaches us that the Nazir does not become a Nazir in a vacuum. More often than not, the Nazir witnesses something that shakes him or her to the core. While most people take out their phones and start recording. While most people click, “like,” or, open-mouthed-face-emoji, and move on, the Nazir cannot ignore the tempest raging in his or her soul. And so the Nazir responds – the Nazir does something, it may be short-lived, it may not have any tangible impact, but he or she knows no other way.
There is a beautiful prayer I used to say when I would leave the Beit Midrash when I studied in Yeshiva. One passage goes like this: Anu ameilim v’heim ameilim, we toil and they toil. Anu ameilim umikablim s’char v’heim ameilim v’einam m’kblim sachar, we toil and receive reward and they toil and do not receive reward.”
I found this passage to be especially uplifting. I’d finish a day of learning, from the crack of dawn until late at night, and as I would close my Gemara, I would ask myself, what did I accomplish today? What did I do? I woke up with a question on Tosafos and I still have that same question. Nothing changed. There was no novel approach developed, no journal entry, nothing.
But that passage I recited as I kissed my Gemara good night, reminded me that we do not measure success by accomplishments alone. It reminded me that as someone who believes in a soul, the impact on my neshama and the impact on the cosmos, though it cannot be tracked, is immense. It reminded me that on a physical and material plane, nothing changes; I work and toil and then I die, leaving nothing behind but a child – if I’m so fortunate – to live the same life I did. But on a spiritual plane, I am building something magnificent. On a spiritual plane, every passuk, every page of Talmud, every Mitzvah, every prayer, every struggle, every act of protest, of standing up for what is right, is meaningful.
The Nazir gets that. The Nazir recognizes that something is being accomplished by fighting back even when you do not win the war. The Nazir appreciates the momentary flight to holiness as being far more everlasting than a stone or plaque. For those who allow themselves to be awake to the fleetingness of life, the Nazir is our greatest role model.
Despite seeing so much death and loss this year, thank G-d most of us are not so callous as to not be moved by current events. We feel worried about Hamas and worried about growing antisemitism right here. We feel anxious about the Jewish future and allyship we used to take for granted. We feel vulnerable and uncertain.
I don’t have a plan of action, an exact set of steps that need to be taken in response, I don’t think anyone does. But I do believe that each one of us have a choice; do we respond like a cicada or do we respond like a Nazir?
A cicada goes to sleep, a Nazir takes action.
A cicada loses itself in acts of pleasure or perpetuation, a Nazir dedicates his or her life to acts of holiness.
A cicada lives and dies, a Nazir lives on forever.
A cicada calls his or her congressman, learns more, joins the IDF, prays more, makes aliyah, protests, or takes on a Mitzvah that he or she haven’t done until now. Be a Nazir. Do something!
Your actions may only last a month, a week, a day. But a Nazir knows that the impact of his or her actions live on forever.