The Leadership Gadfly
I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state…arousing and persuading and reproaching…. You will not easily find another like me.
In their influential book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky emphasize the importance of protecting the gadfly.1Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2009), 145–46, 167–68. A gadfly is someone who just doesn’t fit in. He is the eccentric. She is the one who always asks odd questions. Gadflies may be nerds or geeks or complainers or rebels. They are the people who don’t cohere neatly with a leader’s ideas or with the best portrait picture of a follower because they are not in the inner circle, are not always ambassadors or cheerleaders of an organization, and they are not always easy to manage. They challenge insiders. They defy convention. They prod and pick apart a leader’s best plans with irritating tenacity. Heifetz and Linsky identify gadflies as dissenters, people who are deemed difficult by others.
They are contrarians, often pointing out an entirely different perspective or viewpoint when the momentum seems to be swinging in one direction. They come up with ideas that appear impractical or unrealistic. They make suggestions that others see as off-point. They ask questions that seem tangential. They often claim the moral high ground when most everyone else is just trying to solve the day’s problems. But some of the time, they are the only ones asking the questions that need to be asked and raising the issue that no one wants to talk about. Your task is to preserve their willingness to intervene and speak up.2Heifetz and Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, 167–68.
Dissenters keep a leader honest. And that is why gadflies must be protected by the very leaders that they annoy. Leaders need gadflies precisely because the intelligence, persuasiveness, and charisma of leaders often let abuses of power go undetected and decisions go unchecked. Gadflies are there on the sidelines to check the authority of leaders, to make sure that they are true to a mission or a vision and to identify the breaks and cracks in a system.
Spiritual leadership has its own gadfly in the ancient biblical tradition: the nazarite. The nazarite is a person who decides – either for a limited period of time or for a lifetime – that normative Jewish practices are not sufficient for his or her observance. The nazarite vows abstinence from alcohol and any food or beverage related to the grape. The nazarite craves more stringency and rigidity in his faith commitment. In so doing, the nazarite becomes a fly in the spiritual ointment of the Israelites. The nazarite’s passion and commitment may highlight the mediocre or tepid faith commitment of others in the congregation. The nazarite challenges the religious norm and may provoke the non-nazarites in his presence to question their own willpower and commitment. He even looks different than the crowd. The moment he takes his vow, he is not allowed to cut his hair until his term ends. Because of the external declaration of this pledge, others are also alerted to his vow and can help him reinforce his commitment.
The book of Numbers begins with the general outline of the camp and the census, as mentioned in chapter 1, and continues by delineating those individuals who, out of acts of piety or prohibition, effectively live outside of the traditional confines of the community or encampment. The leaders of the camp must create and enforce the rules and protocols of the camp with an understanding that not every individual has the same needs or characteristics. There are gadflies among us. They must be protected and even nurtured because they teach us, through their differences from us, who we are.
The nazarite, an Israelite ascetic, is a classic example. Judaism does not promote asceticism as mainstream religious behavior, but it does praise nazarites, biblical ascetics who spiritually separated themselves to achieve closeness to God. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his masterwork Halakhic Man, describes the religious personality as one filled with contradictory forces. The desire for asceticism is powerful and all-consuming at times:
Sometimes the craving for transcendence clothes itself in an ascetic garb, in an act of negation of life and this world, in a denial of the worthwhile nature of existence. The longing of homo religiosus for a supernal world that extends beyond the bounds of concrete reality has been embodied in many doctrines of asceticism, renunciation and self-affliction…. The individual who foregoes worldly pleasures and renounces temporal life will merit, according to this view, eternal life and a lofty, exalted existence.3Joseph Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1983), 15.
The nazarite follows an unusual spiritual regimen to achieve these ends. The laws pertaining to nazarites are found at the beginning of the book of Numbers:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a nazarite’s vow, to set himself apart for the Lord, he shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant, and no vinegar of wine or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried. Throughout his term as nazarite, he may not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine, even seeds or skin. All the days of the vow of his separation, no razor shall touch his head, until the days be fulfilled, the hair of his head left to grow untrimmed. Throughout the term that he has set apart for the Lord, he shall not go where there is a dead person. Even if his father or mother, or his sister or brother should die, he must not defile himself for them, since hair set apart for his God is upon his head. Throughout his term as nazarite, he is consecrated to the Lord.’” (Num. 6:1–8)
The primary commitment that a nazarite made was a vow to abstain from wine and other intoxicants. The by-products of the grape are discussed in great textual detail. The nazarite was not permitted to even consume a raisin. His separation was from alcohol and anything that might tempt him to it. Nazarites were also prohibited to shave their heads and to be in the presence of a dead person. A nazarite vow could be taken by a man or a woman;4The Mishna in Nazir discusses the “nezira,” female nazarite. Helena, an ancient convert queen, took a seven-year vow to protect her son at war (Mishna Nazir 3:6). Josephus records that a sister of King Agrippa II also became a nezira (Wars 2:15:1). an unspecified oath lasted only for thirty days, although there was also a lifelong category of nazarite, as typified by both Samson and Samuel in the Bible.5See Judges 16:17 and I Samuel 1:11. According to one contemporary biblical scholar the nazarite’s hair “is the only characteristic common to both the temporary nazarite…and the lifelong nazarite, discussed in biblical narratives.” 6Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990), 45.
Jewish asceticism, unlike many other forms of asceticism, does not seek to separate mind or soul from body, focusing instead on the mind itself, without the trappings of physical pain or deprivation. The Talmud specifically questioned why a nazarite did not abstain from food instead of wine and answered that not having food would weaken him.7Taanit 11b. The sixteenth-century commentator Rabbi Obadiah Sephorno cites the talmudic view in his comments on Numbers 6:3. Abstaining from wine would separate the nazarite from his evil inclination. This is preferable to fasting, which would just weaken him. The goal of abstention is not to weaken the body’s constitution, but to free the mind from distraction or distortion such as would be caused by alcohol consumption. In the words of the sixteenth-century Italian exegete, Rabbi Obadiah Sephorno, the nazarite consecrated himself to God to “engage in His Torah, follow His ways and cling to Him.”8Sephorno ad loc. (Numbers 6:2). The idea is neither to punish nor to weaken the body, but rather to enhance one’s capacity for transcendence.
Along this line of interpretation, some scholars believe that the nazarite showed affinities with the biblical notion of a warrior. The “spirit of the Lord” (Judges 14:19) that traveled through Samson, a nazarite and a warrior, emboldened him, and he was aware that he was not like others as a result of it. “War in early Israel was a holy enterprise, and while on active duty the warrior was in a state of sanctity marked by a special pattern of conduct (Deut. 23:9–14, I Sam. 21:4–6, II Sam. 11:11–12).” 9See J.C. Rylaarsdam under “Nazarite” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), 526. This conduct set him apart for special tasks, treatment, and regard from the rest of the community. Amos linked the prophet, priest, and nazarite as leaders who occupied a special place within society: “‘And I brought you up from the land of Egypt and led you through the wilderness forty years, to possess the land of the Amorite. And I raised up prophets from among your sons, and nazarites from among your young men. Is that not so, O people of Israel?’ says the Lord. ‘But you made the nazarites drink wine and ordered the prophets not to prophecy’” (Amos 2:11–12). God stated, through the agency of the prophet, that He gave the Israelites leaders from among their own, but that they abandoned that leadership by going against the strictures that made their leadership both meaningful and functional. Amos declared these individuals to have a special vocation, but one whose “role has been frustrated.”10Ibid. It is not coincidental that Amos mentioned wilderness and the nazarite in the same breath. The wilderness was a place that highlighted mortality and humility; it was a place of deep loneliness that encouraged dependence on God and contemplation of the vastness of His universe. It was also a place that could drive you to drink.11That despair will drive a person to drink is perhaps best illustrated biblically in Genesis 9:20. There, Noah left the ark to confront a world bereft of life. His first act was to plant a vineyard, drink of its wine, and get drunk.
The priest and the nazarite also shared the prohibition to drink, even though the priest’s transgression was only service-related. The nazarite, like the priest, was not allowed contact with the dead, even those in his own immediate family. The nazarite in Numbers 6:11, like the priest in Leviticus 21:6, was considered consecrated to God: “He shall be holy.” Both the priest and the nazarite sacrificed sin offerings. The nazarite’s vow was marked by growing his hair. Similarly, the act of anointing a priest drew attention to the priest’s head: “Take the anointing oil and pour it on his head and anoint him” (Num. 29:7). The head of the priest, while also a place of spiritual focus and clarity, was not a place of attention for the Jewish public. His hair was to be indistinguishable from others – not too long, not too short.
A priest on active duty was not allowed to grow his hair long: “They [the priests] shall neither shave their heads nor let their hair go untrimmed. No priest shall drink wine when he enters the inner court” (Ezek. 44:20). Here, two verses describe a spiritual leader of the Jewish people in terms of the prohibition to drink and hair-related exhortations. The priest when servicing the inner court had to have complete clarity of mind, not blurred by intoxication. The prohibition to refrain from alcohol is stated explicitly in Leviticus:
And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying, “Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the clean and the unclean; and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses. (Lev. 10:8–11)
The priest and the nazarite had different hairstyles because they had different lifestyles. The priest took on an inherited responsibility to serve in a spiritual capacity for the people as a life obligation. His spirituality was directed outward and bound to public service. His robes and accessories distinguished him so that those in the Temple precincts knew to whom to offer their sacrifices and from whom to receive blessings. His uniform indicated to others that he was available as a spiritual mentor or intermediary. The nazarite’s visibility, however, was to highlight a temporary commitment that was deeply personal. The hair served a purpose somewhat opposite the priest’s. It set the nazarite apart and told others to keep their distance, not to tempt the nazarite away from the course of behavior he selected to repair himself. In the words of Bible scholar Nehama Leibowitz: “Previous inability to control and discipline his desires, within the bounds imposed by the Torah, had made it necessary for the person concerned to restrict himself even further and vow himself to abstinence. The nazarite vow was thus a necessary but extreme medicine for spiritual ills.”12Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, trans. Aryeh Newman (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1980), 57. Spiritual pitfalls were to be avoided through the head by being of sound and clear mind, as symbolized by the covering on the head: the hair.
The Nazarite Locks
A number of medieval and modern Bible interpreters point to the Hebrew root word N-Z-R as a crown, the word used in Numbers 6 to signify the title. Abraham Ibn Ezra explains in his commentary that whoever is free from desire is likened to a king who has a crown and royal diadem on his head.13Abraham Ibn Ezra, Sefer HaYashar, Numbers 6:7. See also Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: “Just as ‘nezer’ means the royal diadem which marks the person whose head it surrounds as being set apart and inaccessible, so here ‘nezer’ designates a regime of living and striving that raises the person who vows of his own free will to undertake it”; Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Pentateuch with Translation and Commentary, trans. Isaac Levy (Gateshead, England: Judaica Press, 1976), 80 (Numbers 6:3). In other words, the nazarite crowns himself, distinguishes himself, through the look of his head. Subsequently, the nazarite’s mind must be protected from influences that would obstruct clarity of thought and contemplation. Thus, not only is he not allowed contact with impurity, he must not even cut his hair. Others around him must see his head as the most prominent demonstration of his religious commitment. It is left alone, untainted and untouched, as a symbol of the mind his hair covers. As the biblical text expresses it: “hair set apart for his God is upon his head” (Num. 6:5). The fascinating use of the expression “his God” shows how personal and private this state is. By allowing his hair to grow, others around him will recognize that he has dedicated his mental life to God, if only for a limited time. The nazarite’s hair is like the nun’s habit and the Buddhist monk’s saffron robes. It is a visible sign of the spiritual force field that surrounds the ascetic and tells others in the community that he is different. They too must not compromise his vows.
“Want a drink?” an ancient Israelite says at a party. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he notices the flowing tresses of the man standing next to him. “I take back my offer, sir. You’re a nazarite!” The nazarite’s hair was a self-defining limitation. In growing his hair, he was ostensibly asking others to help him keep his personal demons at bay without having to verbalize the tensions fighting within him. He did not need to speak or to embarrass himself. He let his hair tell his story. According to one exegete, Rabbi Solomon Astruc, the sin offering the nazarite brought was not over choosing asceticism in a religious climate of moderation, but because his vow was in response to a specific sin: “For that which he sinned: for the fact that his passions got the better of him, until he was driven to abstain from wine to subdue his material desires and bodily wants and to deny himself the legitimate enjoyment of wine that makes glad both God and man.”14As seen in Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, 57. Wine is at the center of religious events and is deemed in Psalms to be the source of great human joy. Under ordinary circumstances, a person is allowed and often obligated to drink alcohol in Jewish law. But the nazarite disallows himself in response to personal sin that may have led him to lose control. The nazarite vow is controlling because the transgressor in question asks to be controlled and may be angry with himself for losing control. The vow itself is like a confession; it tells others that there is a problem that can only be excised in an extreme way.
That hair should play a role in the nazarite’s oath is, however, contextually puzzling. In Numbers 5:18, the chapter that precedes the nazarite laws, a woman accused of infidelity, a sota, was brought to the high priest, and he was to “bare her head.” Commentators there understand this act of dishevelment as one that would make her look guilty of the sin for which she was being accused. Long, unbraided tresses were the mark of the adulteress. Her flowing hair made her seductive and enticing. In fact, the rabbinic ligament between the sota and the nazarite – which follow each other in the biblical text – is that if a person saw a woman in such a state, he would immediately take an oath of abstention to keep away from any intoxication that could lead to such immoral consequences.15Sota 2a. Abraham Ibn Ezra, who not incidentally wrote sacred poetry in the days of heady Spanish wine and garden parties, observed that “most transgressions are rooted in wine.”16Ibn Ezra, Sefer HaYashar, Numbers 6:2. He continues in his comments to note that, in his reading, a woman who did not fix her hair appropriately would not be wanted by her husband. Her loose hair would have been a sign to him that she was a woman of loose morals. Why then demand that the nazarite grow his own hair? How can the hair be both a sign of adultery and a sign of abstention as it is for these two texts living in the same neighborhood?
There seems to be a subtle intimation in the proximity of the biblical texts that these two are to be compared and not merely contrasted. If we understand that the nazarite’s primary reason for taking an oath and offering a sacrifice is to meditate on his sins and to rectify them by pulling to another extreme, then the act of growing the hair may actually be regarded as an extension of the look of sin. This is ultimately rectified by the sacrifice where the nazarite burns his hair on the altar. In other words, to answer our question we must look not only at the hair growth but at the haircut as integral to the nazarite ritual. In the biblical text in Numbers, nine out of the twenty-one verses discussing the nazarite ritual are devoted to the sacrifice that ends the vow. The nazarite grows out his hair, creating an imaginary extension to a state of sin; in burning his hair, he returns to his earlier state of innocence before his transgression. The offering is integral to the nazarite procedure and is not only a symbolic mark of its cessation.
The Nazarite’s Sacrifice
The sacrifices that the nazarite brought to end his vow led to conflicting views in rabbinic literature as to how one regards the ascetic. Maimonides, an advocate of the Aristotelian golden mean, believes that the nazarite included a sin offering because, in order to achieve spiritual heights, he needed to act outside the norms of Jewish law, which advocates moderation.17Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot 3:1. Nahmanides, the medieval Spanish Bible commentator, radically departs from this view, suggesting that the nazarite brought a sacrifice not for leaving the path of moderation, but for knowing his own spiritual proclivity towards asceticism and, despite this, ending his vow. He should have remained in this state, created and proscribed by Jewish law for individuals of his religious constitution.
The most curious aspect of the sacrifice is not how one explains its purpose, but how one explains its details. The traditional sacrificial elements are present: two lambs and a ram, unleavened cakes of choice flour, and unleavened wafers in oil, all of which are presented to the priest. However, in an often-neglected detail, the nazarite then himself contributes to the presentation of the offering: “The nazarite shall then shave his consecrated hair at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and take the locks of his consecrated hair and put them on the fire that is under the sacrifice of well-being” (Num. 6:18). An integral part of transitioning the nazarite back to ordinary life was not only the cutting of his hair, but also the offering of his hair on the altar as part of the sacrifice itself. He had to watch his own hair, the most prominent aspect of his ascetic commitment, go up in heavenly smoke, creating the mental readiness to rejoin the world of distraction and mental static. Watching his hair burn created total recognition that his break from the often-banal world of human engagement was over. Similarly, God commanded Ezekiel to take a razor and cut the hair on his head and beard and then divide the hair into sections to mimic the takeover of Jerusalem which was to be segmented after a conquest: “Take also a few [hairs] from there and tie them up in your skirts. And take some more of them and cast them into the fire. From this a fire shall go out upon the whole House of Israel” (Ezek. 5:1–4). Like the nazarite, the prophet must burn his own hair to place himself in the drama of a moment. He set fire to part of himself. Burning hair creates an unpleasant stench. In the talmudic Tractate Shabbat, in a discussion of material that can serve as wicks for Shabbat lights, the use of hair is prohibited because it does not burn; it scorches.18Shabbat 21a. Thus, in sight and smell, the hair offering must have given the nazarite pause.
It seems, and this is corroborated by the Targumim – ancient translations of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic – that there was an oven or blaze under the sacrificial altar that held a separate fire. This explains the expression at the end of the verse, the fire that is under the sacrifice. The nazarite placed his hair in these flames. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has a beautiful observation on this moment:
His life as a nazarite was only to have been a preparatory provisional training. If letting the hair grow was a sign of a sanctifying separation and withdrawal into oneself, the complete shaving is the expression of thenceforth ceasing this separation and thenceforth completely entering again the whole social life of the community. This completely [sic] entering into the whole social life of the community is not merely something permissible, it is a mitzva, duty. 19Hirsch, The Pentateuch with Translation and Commentary, 95 (Numbers 6:18).
The sacrifice that was offered at this time was the shelamim, which means whole or perfect. By giving his hair and thus symbolically returning his head to the community, he was becoming more perfect or whole. His removal from the community of normative practice when he took the vow was reversed when he burned his hair and reentered the very same faith community he had left. Thus, Rabbi Hirsch contends that the nazarite state is not the ultimate one, but a preparatory one for those who find themselves unable to live within communal precincts. They follow their inclination in an exaggerated form until they rid themselves of their need for religious isolation. The personal burning of the hair is not a sad act of departure from the life of the spirit, but an act of wholeness as one reenters humanity with all its complexities.
In “The Rape of the Lock,” eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope highlighted the drama of fallen hair:
Fate urged the shear, and cut the sylph in twain
(But airy substance soon unites again)
The meeting points the sacred hair dissever
From the fair head, forever and forever!
Pope magnifies the sense that the cutting of hair signifies a change in identity. People seeking an identity change or who have one forced upon them often begin with a change of hair length or style. The military creates uniformity among its servicepeople by insisting on short hair. Fashion models and actors or actresses change the look and color of their hair as they metamorphose into other characters. Victims of illness resulting in hair loss often share the fact that this, sometimes more than any other aspect of their sickness, causes them to feel different and almost dislocated from a former, healthy self. What Pope cleverly does in these lines is to bracket reality. While people may perceive that they have undergone a complete change of identity with a change of hair length or style, in actuality, their hair will once again grow back. At that moment of great self-consciousness, it seems that one’s hair will never grow back. It always does.
This fact gives the impression that external identities and the internal dynamics they conceal and reveal are as malleable as one’s hair. This, indeed, is the case for the nazarite. Watching his burning hair may have given the nazarite the impression that his sanctity was lost forever on altar fires. It was not. Just as hair grows and changes, so too, do our spiritual proclivities and actions. This particular crop of hair may have signified one’s retreat from the world, and burning it one’s reentrance, but with it another chapter of religious life opened. The nazarite humbled himself by watching the vainglory of his exploits – just as much a part of his identity as his hair – go up in smoke. The paralysis of such a moment was a jarring statement of the futility of most vows. We are, in the end, the same people. Changed internally, perhaps, we remain the same outside to others.
The Exception to the Rule
Judges 13 tells the story of Samson’s humble beginnings. His father Manoah and his mother, the wife of Manoah, were simple people. His mother’s unnamed presence in the story is the locus of pain; the hero’s anonymous mother is lost to posterity as an individual in her own right. Samson did not benefit from the typical genealogical introduction awarded most biblical characters. We are told that Samson’s mother was infertile, but unlike the heroines of other infertility stories in the Bible, she did not protest this state. She was awed by the presence of an angel who informed her that she would have a son who would one day “begin to save the Israelites from the Philistines” (Judges 13:5). She had to take a number of precautions regarding her own food and behavior during the pregnancy and make sure that a razor would not touch the child’s head upon his arrival.
Samson, a person of unusual strength and distinction, is born to parents who were not distinguished or exceptional. The story around the birth, told in great detail for a hero of only four biblical chapters, indicates that Samson’s own leadership was to be fraught with tension and hypocrisy. His father, Manoah, questioned the angelic identity of the “man” who appeared to his wife with the miraculous annunciation of his birth; doubting the presence of an angel demonstrated Manoah’s own spiritual limitations. There was a struggle between human drives and religious leadership, alien forces versus homegrown habits. Samson did destroy the enemy as predicted, but only by living and operating within enemy territory. Samson loved foreign women; he lived among them and was even handed over by his own people to the Philistines, who regarded him as a security threat. Samson cried out in his darkest moment, “Let me die with the Philistines” (Judges 16:30), as the pillars that he was tied to were pushed apart and the temple housing numerous Philistine leaders toppled upon them.
Samson was riddled by contradictions and was, himself, a riddler. He told riddles at his wedding party and played word games that held all in suspense. He understood that the secret of his strength lay in his locks. It was his private riddle. But when Delilah teased it out of him, he admitted as much:
Finally, after she nagged him and pressed him constantly, he was wearied to death and he confided everything to her. He said to her, “No razor has ever touched my head, for I have been a nazarite to God ever since I was in my mother’s womb. If my hair were cut, my strength would leave me, and I should become as weak as an ordinary man.” (Judges 16:16–17)
Delilah wasted no time:
She lulled him to sleep on her lap. Then she called in a man and she had him cut off the seven locks of his head; thus she weakened him and made him helpless; his strength slipped away from him. (Judges 16:19)
The problem with the Samson story is that his hair was the one part of him that was hardly a secret. A nazarite for life would have had extremely long hair; it would have been his most distinctive feature. The biblical narrative teases the reader much the way that Delilah teased Samson. It was not hard to figure out his secret. The ominous impact of nagging in the text is that through it, “he was wearied to death.” This foreshadow of his real death by the end of the chapter shows us the thoughtlessness of his enemies: they could not figure out on their own the most obvious “secret” about Samson. His visual distinctiveness also provides a sociological comment on the nazarite status. Looks are deceiving. There are those who take vows and look the part but may themselves be riddled with contradictions and temptations. Perhaps it is these very temptations that push an ordinary individual into assuming extraordinary status.
The relationship of Samson’s narrative to chapter 6 of Numbers is one that pits the proscriptive and descriptive parts of Jewish law next to one another. This textual diptych – hardly discussed in biblical scholarship – demonstrates that law and living do not always go hand in hand. There are complexities and exigencies that are not considered by the dramatic minimalism of legal writing. Studying Pentateuchal law alongside prophetic narratives shows how legal accounts can be trim and unbending, and are aided by narratives that demonstrate that life is hardly as rigid and didactic. “And if any person turns to ghosts and familiar spirits and goes astray after them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from among his people,” bellows Leviticus 20:6. This law was followed strictly. King Saul even strengthened it during the course of his leadership (I Sam. 28:3). But when Saul was losing in battle and his leadership was ebbing, he called to his courtiers: “Find me a woman who consults ghosts, so that I can go to her and inquire through her” (I Sam. 28:7). Saul visited the famous witch of Endor, disguised in “different clothes” (I Sam. 28:8). The exceptions to the rule demonstrate that Jewish law and Jewish living are not the same thing. The law is there to set the golden standard, a bar of ethical or theological excellence. The exceptions in prophetic literature illustrate that law is followed by flawed human beings.
A nazarite struggled with the weight and repercussions of sin, either his own or that which he witnessed. His behavior was an extreme response. Samson, as a nazarite, did not escape from sin through his vow. He was consecrated as a nazarite for life, indicating that his whole life was a battlefield of human temptation against human virtue. And the sacrifice of burning one’s newly grown hair, the crown of the nazarite oath, in Samson’s character was the cutting of his hair at the hands of the Philistines. Their temple became his altar. His sacrifice was ultimately himself. Samson, the lifelong nazarite, was just that. He gave himself up on the altar of sacrifice, but he did so as a young man. Samson’s alarming story illustrates the point made earlier, namely that changing one’s identity is as easy as cutting off one’s hair.
Turning back to Numbers 6, we find that the wilderness did strange things to human beings. It contorted reality and surfaced deep human hungers and weaknesses. It brought out extremes of behavior, and it is, not surprisingly, the place where the only permitted form of asceticism in the Hebrew Bible is presented. The nazarite was the spiritual gadfly of the ancient Israelite camp, provoking in his or her encounter with the other, the spiritual longings and fears that draw certain personalities and repel others. In the restraint of his passions, the nazarite prompts us to question our own.
Leaders, to be successful, must understand how to lead those who are not natural followers. By delineating the camp, those who are outside it, and those who are inside and outside at the same time, the book of Numbers helps us understand that leaders rarely choose their followers. They usually inherit them. And in that inheritance, there will be a sampling of all types, those who play by the rules and those who do not. The nazarite did not break the rules of the camp, but did challenge the ethos of those rules. As such, his presence was always a challenge. But if the nazarite was a spiritual gadfly who responded to the wilderness landscape by mirroring its minimalism in some way, then the task of the leader is to ensure that the diversity of the camp is protected. All have a place. More than that, the leader must create the necessary conditions for the nazarite to return whole into the camp when he is ready. Leaders should be judged, in part, by how they manage those on the margins of their jurisdiction, on the place they create for dissenters and the most vulnerable, and on how they welcome them into the community when they are ready to join or come back.