The Torah in Parashat Naso presents the laws relevant to a nazir – one who takes the nazirite vow committing himself for a period of time to several restrictions, including haircutting – “a razor shall not pass over his head” (6:5).
Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitz, in his Mei Ha-shiloach (Parashat Behaalotekha), notes the contrast between this restriction observed by the nazir, and the process of the induction of the Leviyim, which included the removal of all their hair, as we read later (8:7). Whereas a nazir is forbidden to cut any of his hair, the Leviyim were formally inducted into their role as servants in the Mishkan by removing all their hair. The Mei Ha-shiloach explains this contrast based on the Zohar’s teaching that hair represents anger. The Leviyim were required to remove their hair as a symbol of their eliminating their negative character traits to be worthy of ministering before God in the Mishkan. The nazir, the Mei Ha-shiloach writes, lets his hair grow representing the triggering of a certain form of anger. A sincerely driven nazir takes his vow, which includes refraining from wine, in order to combat his sinful impulses. This is indicated by the famous statement of Shimon Ha’tzadik (Nedarim 9b) who said that, as a kohein gadol, he never partook of the sacrifices of nezirim because he felt they were all insincere, except in the case of one particular nazir, who had taken his vow to combat his desires. The Mei Ha-shiloach writes, in an enigmatic passage, “A strategy against desire is that a person brings himself to anger.” Anger is an effective means of combatting sinful desire, and therefore the nazir, who commits himself to subdue his negative impulses, grows his hair as a symbol of the “anger” he should muster as part of this effort.
How might we understand the Zohar’s comment that hair symbolizes anger, and how does this relate to the nazir’s struggle to overcome his natural vices?
Just as hair naturally grows from a person’s body, anger naturally grows and accumulates within us over time. The complexities and challenges of daily life can make us feel dissatisfied and frustrated, which can easily lead to anger. Just as one must cut and groom his hair to maintain a respectable appearance, similarly, we must “cut” and control our negative feelings in order to function properly in society.
However, the Mei Ha-shiloach here teaches that allowing anger to grow is appropriate in one specific context – when these feelings are directed towards ourselves, towards our own faults and vices. Harboring anger towards other people is destructive, but harboring anger towards our own shortcomings could spur us to grow and improve. And thus while we are generally encouraged to follow the example of the Leviyim, who removed all their hair as a symbol of the elimination of anger, the nazir refrains from haircutting as a symbol of his anger at his own faults, a form of anger which will help motivate him to change.
Significantly, the Torah requires the nazir to cut his hair upon completing his term of nezirut (6:18). His period of “anger” is useful as a temporary, short-term measure to focus his attention on combatting his sinful instincts, but is not encouraged as a permanent condition. Even anger directed toward ourselves should be minimized. Although we should constantly strive to improve, we must be careful to still respect ourselves, to admire our positive qualities and our accomplishments, and to avoid feeling angry at ourselves just as we must avoid feeling angry at others. We should want to be better in the future without disliking who we are in the present. The nazir’s “anger” is legitimate and admirable as a temporary measure, but is not a model that should be followed on a long-term basis.