Wondrous and Wonderful
PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Shavuot, Naso is the Parsha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora.
The word “פלא”
There’s a Hebrew word that keeps appearing in the context of the Nazir, the man or woman who takes a vow of abstinence from wine and hair grooming. The word is “פלא,” and it’s usually translated as a “wonder” or something out of the ordinary. For example, the very first time it appears in Tanakh is when Sarah laughed at the prospect of having a child at the age of 90. Hashem said to Avraham (Gen. 18:14): “הֲיִפָּלֵא מֵיְקֹוָק דָּבָר” – “Is anything too wondrous for G-d?!” And yet, in the context of the Nazir, the word is used to describe his or her vow of Nazirism (6:2):
דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם אִישׁ אוֹ־אִשָּׁה כִּי יַפְלִא לִנְדֹּר נֶדֶר נָזִיר לְהַזִּיר לַיקֹוָק
Speak to Bnei Israel and say to them: When a man or woman wishes to utter a vow of Nazirism to become a Nazir to Hashem.
The word “פלא” is also used twice in the book of Vayikra to describe a pledge to the Temple, once for a sacrificial pledge (22:21), and once for an “’erchin” pledge, when one pledges a valuation to the Temple (27:2). Why is a word that describes “wonder” used to define to Temple pledges?
Furthermore, our Haftarah (from Judges 13) discusses the story of Shimshon’s birth, and how an angel came to Manoach and his wife to portend the birth of their son, and that he would need to be a lifelong Nazir from birth. In this narrative, the word “פלא” oddly appears twice. The angel first promises Manoach and his wife that they will have a very special son and that he must be a Nazir his whole life. When Manoach asks the angel his name, the angel responds (Jud. 13:18): “לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי וְהוּא־פֶלִאי:” – “Why are you asking my name? It is wondrous!”
In the next verse, Manoach places a sacrificial offering to Hashem on a rock. The verse then says (13:19), “וּמַפְלִא לַעֲשׂוֹת” – “he,” ostensibly the angel, performed miraculous wonders by causing a fire to come down and consume the sacrifice, while Manoah and his wife looked on. There seems to be a clear correlation between Nazirism and this word for both “wonder” and “pledge.”
It would seem that this word “פלא” is descriptive of doing something extraordinary that transcends the nature of either the doer or the natural order of things. When Hashem is described as an (Ex. 15:11) “עֹשֵׂה פֶלֶא” – “a Doer of wonders,” it is in the context of His splitting of the Red Sea. This is where Hashem took a completely inanimate body of water, and brought it to life and had it do something which was completely against its nature. When a person takes a pledge to transcend their nature, they are doing something wondrous.
Just as a person who achieves an extraordinary athletic feat, like breaking a world record for speed for jumping, has done something “wondrous,” so, too, a person who goes beyond their own natural desires and tendencies, by taking a vow of abstinence, by giving up something of value for G-d, or by using a physical item for purely spiritual purposes, they are “מפליא,” doing something “wondrous.”
The Physical and Spiritual Working in Harmony
Another thing that goes against the natural order is bringing together the physical and the spiritual and having them work in harmony. This is why our Sages instituted a blessing that contains this word “פלא”, when describing the wonders of the human body. All of us have souls that occupy our bodies and animate our lifeless shells in a truly “wondrous” hybridization between the spiritual and the physical. The human body, in this sense, is truly “wondrous.”
That is why, after using the bathroom, a person proclaims their wonder and gratitude over this miraculous body that Hashem gave us, by saying, “רופא כל בשר ומפליא לעשות” – Blessed are you Hashem, who heals all flesh and acts wondrously. It is just as wondrous for the body to stay tethered to the spiritual soul as it is for the soul to remain tethered to the physical body.
The Nazir is truly “wondrous,” in that he or she transcends their instinctive tendencies for the physical. This is why an angel appeared to Manoach and his wife to portend Shimshon’s birth. An angel is a purely spiritual being, and his very presence in announcing the birth was a message that this child would need to transcend his physical tendency in order to fulfill his task of leading the Jewish people, at a particularly precarious juncture in the history of the nascent Jewish nation. That is why, when asked his name, the angel responded, “וְהוּא־פֶלִאי” – my name is my function – to provide the impetus to make sure that your son does wondrous things with his life! This is also why the next verse states, “וּמַפְלִא לַעֲשׂוֹת” – “he was doing wonders.”
This ambiguous phrase refers to both the angel, who performed spiritual manipulations of the physical, and Manoach, who, through his offering was performing physical manipulations of the spiritual. Once the angel created this exchange with his human counterpart, he knew that his task was completed and he could depart back to the heavens, which is described as a miraculous spectacle of the angel ascending through the fire of the altar in the very next verse (13:20).
Physicality from a Place of Spiritual Holiness
In the times of Shimshon, the Jews needed a savior who would manifest as a physically powerful being but would do so from a place of spiritual holiness. They needed this wondrous hybridization of the body and the soul, in order to impress upon them that they could physically defeat their Philistine enemies, but that their strength lay in their spiritual connection to Hashem. Shimshon embodied this message through his Nazirism and incredible physical strength.
Any time a person takes a vow of abstinence they are expressing a desire to transcend the purely physical nature of what defines them. Such an effort will not only aid the individual by allowing them to recalibrate an imbalance in their lives between the physical and the spiritual, but it will also trigger a Divine response of “פלא”. If a person wishes to see wondrous things in his life, they should first try and be wondrous themselves and transcend their nature.
Our bodies are amazing constructs and it behooves all of us to appreciate the tremendous miracle and complexity of the human body. We should be so thankful every time our bodies work properly, that our hearts are beating, our lungs are breathing, our blood is circulating, and our intestines are digesting. What’s more, it’s truly wondrous that we have the ability, through our heightened intellects, to appreciate the miracles of life. When we find ourselves misaligned in our priorities, we can take the step of transcending who we are right now, and be “מפליא” temporarily to become a figurative Nazir. But we should also express our own wonder at the amazing world and the amazing life that Hashem grants us every single moment of our lives.
May our expressions of wonder over this wonderful world bring us ever closer to its perfection, bb”a.