One of the many topics in Parshat Naso is the Nazir, the person who tries to become closer to Hashem by abstaining from certain activities and items. In 6:8, the Torah says about a Nazir, “All the days of his separation, he is Kodesh to Hashem” (6:8). The Torah proceeds to discuss what the Nazir must do if he accidentally comes in contact with a dead body, including bringing a Korban Asham and a Korban Chatat. The Torah specifically connects the Nazir’s Asham to the fact that “his abstinence was impurified” (6:12), but regarding the Chatat the Torah just says, “VeChiper…MeiAsher Chata Al HaNefesh,” “he shall atone for…that which he sinned regarding the soul” (6:11), which is not as clear a reference to the Nazir’s contact with an impure dead body. Some opinions, such as Chizkuni and Rav Saadia Gaon, do claim that “the soul” refers to the soul of the dead body that the Nazir touched. Rashi, however, cites a Tanna who argues that the Pasuk refers to the Nazir’s own soul, regarding which he sinned by depriving himself of wine for even more time, as the Nazir’s contact with dead body requires him to restart the Nezirut process. A problem with this opinion is that if it is a sin to extend the period for which a Nazir must abstain from wine, then it should be a sin to abstain wine in the first place, and people should be discouraged from becoming Nazirim. If this is so, why does the Torah state in Pasuk 8 that a Nazir is “Kodesh to Hashem?”
This apparent contradiction between the Pesukim (according to Rashi’s reading) also reflects a disagreement between the Rambam and Rabbeinu Bachya regarding the merit of abstinence in general. The Rambam in his Mishnah Torah (Hilchot Dei’ot Chapter 3) states that people should only abstain from that which the Torah already forbids us from doing, such as eating non-kosher foods and engaging in forbidden relations. He claims that the Nazir’s Chatat is brought for the sin of abstention from wine and adds that if it a sin to abstain from wine, all the more so we may not abstain from other things in addition to wine.
Rabbeinu Bachya in Duties of the Heart (the Gate of Abstinence, chapter 6) takes the opposite approach. He quotes Bemidbar 6:8 (“All the days of his separation, [the Nazir] is kodesh to Hashem”), and points out that if a Nazir, who only lets his hair grow long and refrains from drinking wine, is holy, all the more so one who does not desire any extra pleasure at all will be rewarded.
A possible resolution between these two opinions might be discovered in the approach of Rabbeinu Chaim Luzzato in chapter 13 of Mesilat Yesharim,. He states that people should abstain from things that might lead them to sin – for example, men should avoid all seminal emissions because they lead to lust and sin – but they should not abstain from things that are necessary for survival, such as food. This fits well with the Rambam’s explanation because he also says that people should engage in worldly pleasures with heavenly intent. For example, one may take a nap for the sake of having the energy to learn Torah (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 231). Clearly, however, the Rambam would not allow the engaging in such pleasurable acts if it will lead to sin. Rav Luzzato’s approach also fits well with Rabbeinu Bachya, because he mentions that people should not totally remove themselves from the pleasures of this world to an unreasonable extent. In fact, it is arguable that the only difference between the Rambam and Rabbeinu Bachya is not their philosophies, but the focus of their explanations. Although they both agree that people should abstain from that which leads to evil and practice that which leads to good, Rabbeinu Bachya focuses on the need for abstinence, while the Rambam focuses on the error of abstaining too much.
In summation, abstinence can be good or bad depending on the situation. For example, Rabbeinu Bachya in Duties of the Heart (ad. loc) discusses abstaining from worldly pleasures merely for the sake of being praised for their holiness, which is clearly not at all praiseworthy. This double nature of abstinence also reflects the double nature of Nizerut. One might become a Nazir for the sake of keeping himself from sinning, in which case he would be holy to Hashem, or he could have became a Nazir for the sake of other less holy reasons, in which case he would have sinned regarding his own soul by unnecessarily depriving himself of wine.