The struggle for self-control is one of the most important and difficult battles a human being can fight in his lifetime. Unfortunately, these battles result in casualties, and willpower often loses to temptation.
To become a nazir, we are told in Parshat Naso, a person must take a vow, which commits him to abstain from grape products, defiling himself, and cutting his hair. The Torah uses a strange word to describe the act of vowing, namely, “yafli.” The Ibn Ezra presents two possibilities for what the word could mean: 1) set oneself apart (yafrish); 2) wonder (pelah). The nazir’s commitment to self-control, the Ibn Ezra argues, is so rare and powerful that it is deemed wondrous.
Thus, the nazir‘s vow both inspires us to have more self-control and reminds us that most people fail or, even worse, don’t even try to defeat temptation.
The section that immediately precedes that of the nazir in the Torah concerns the sotah. If a woman secludes herself with a man after husband warned her in front of witnesses not to must go through a certain ceremony which will determine whether she committed adultery or not.
Noting the juxtaposition of these two otherwise seemingly different topics, the Midrash suggests that nazir comes after sotah because anyone who witnesses the downfall of the sotah will be so dedicated to avoiding her fate that he or she will commit to not drink any wine fearing that wine could lead to adultery.
The connection the Midrash makes between nazir and sotah is not trivial. It reveals the core message behind both. Both teach us that the ideal way to combat temptations is by avoiding the battle in the first place. To avoid becoming a sotah, don’t put yourself in an environment that is conducive to sin. That includes not drinking wine and avoiding secluded areas which are more primed for temptation.
Then along comes the parsha of nazir and the lesson is intensified. Usually the Sages are responsible for implementing additional restrictions to protect Biblical commandments. In the case of the nazir, however, the Torah itself provides adds restrictions to protect the original law. Don’t just avoid wine; avoid any grape products. Don’t just avoid grape products; avoid even approaching a vineyard!
In a 2016 article entitled “Situational Strategies for Self-Control,” Dr. Angela Duckworth argues that “situational strategies” are the most effective ones to avoid self-control failures. Yet, they are also the most underappreciated and underutilized.
We often take the battle against temptation head on and eventually lose to that delicious looking piece of chocolate cake. We think we will be able to study, but become powerless to avoid the allure of our phones. The smartest and most effective strategy to win these battles is to not buy the chocolate cake in the first place and to leave our phone off when we want to focus.
Yes, the struggle for self-control is difficult, but many of us go about it all wrong. Fighting a head-to-head battle against temptation should be only a last resort. Far smarter is to learn from the sotah’s mistakes and take the lead from the nazir and avoid the battle in the first place. Avoid temptations and situations that could lead to sin.
By doing so, we will have better luck in attaining our self-control goals and become happier, healthier, and more spiritually-refined people.