This time of the year especially I remember having a full head of hair. Warm days in May and June summon up for me the feeling of wavy locks on the back of the neck. The only thing about it that I don’t miss is the sweat! Near baldness, in temperate terms at least, is significantly cooler than the long shag I sported as an 18 year old. Back then, however, the hair was cool.
The image of a loosened head of (long?) hair shows up twice in this week’s parashah, and in both instances it seems to symbolize disorder. At the start of the ordeal faced by a wife suspected of infidelity by her husband, we read that “the priest shall bare the woman’s head and place upon her hands the meal offering of remembrance, which is a meal offering of jealousy. And in the priest’s hands shall be the water of bitterness that induces the spell.” [Numbers 5:18] A chapter later, in its description of the Nazirite’s oath, the Torah indicates that “throughout the term of his vow as nazirite, no razor shall touch his head; it shall remain consecrated until the completion of his term as nazirite of the Lord, the hair of his head being left to grow untrimmed.” [Numbers 6:5]
Bible scholar Stephen Geller offers the possibility that “this element of emotion or spontaneity is precisely what links the laws of the sotah ordeal and the nazirite oath. Both involve feelings a person cannot contain. From the point of view of the priestly tradition, which valued regularity and order, both unbridled jealousy and the perfervid emotions that might lead one to make an oath precipitously, were dangers that had to be controlled and fit into the ritual system. The quasi-magical ordeal might still a husband’s suspicions and the list of required sacrifices might prevent a nazirite’s hasty oath.” Geller adds: “The loosening or lengthening of hair symbolizes not only indeterminacy but also uncontrollability.”
The root that means ‘loosening of the hair’ – p,r,’a – while uncommon appears in two notable contexts in the Bible. The Book of Proverbs uses the verb to describe the throwing off of good counsel and appropriate behavior. And in the Book of Exodus (32:25), the word parua’ a participle derived from the same root, describes the wildness and out of control quality of the people in the midst of their rebellion at the Golden Calf. In the eyes of the Biblical authors, nothing good comes from loosened hair.
Many days it feels as if we live in a time of ‘loosened hair’ and it is profoundly unsettling. Indeterminacy and an absence of control and order seem to be the order of the day. Unbridled jealousy and perfervid emotions dominate public discourse and drive public policy. I get the distress felt by the priestly authors of Numbers 5 and 6 at the prospect of profound disorder. The same priestly authors gave us the antidote in the form of the blessing that centers and anchors this week’s parashah. The geographic middle of Naso is inhabited by Birkat kohanim – the famous priestly blessing which concludes with the hope that God will lift the Divine face and grant us peace. Short hair and shalom, evidently, have a great deal in common!