Evan Wolkenstein, Director of Experiential Education; Jewish Studies Teacher

When I was in fifth grade, our teacher told us that if we gave an educational presentation to the class, we could have extra credit. I didn’t need extra credit in science – for me, it was a chance to talk in front of a class about chameleons, the Oort Cloud, or the incredible acronym, ROYGBIV. This is making me wonder if maybe I wasn’t getting enough attention from my peers. Anyhow, after a half dozen of these educational talks, new rules were instituted: there was a limit to how many times we could present, and I had far exceeded my legal limit. Then, in Social Studies, a clever student asked the teacher if she might also introduce extra credit reports and her answer struck me: “Rather than try to earn extra credit,” she said, “why not focus on the actual assignments I’m giving you? You have plenty of work to do without adding more.”

In this week’s Parsha, the Israelites learn the rules of becoming a Nazirite: no wine. No grapes. No cutting your hair. No contacting a corpse or entering into a graveyard. That’s it. The Torah, as usual, says nothing about why anyone would want to be a Nazir. Nor does it say anything about what benefits such a status might confer. Sure, the shoresh/root of Nazir implies separation, being set aside or special – but if I told you I belonged to a club where we get together, we avoid grapes, we avoid corpses, and we all look like the guitar-guy from ZZ Top, you might wonder – why?

The Torah doesn’t explain it. But at JCHS, in Comparative Religion, we read about Siddhartha Gautama’s time living with the Samanas. The Samanas don’t wear clothes. They don’t eat. They starve and burn and exhaust themselves in the search to conquer the mind and the appetites (It seems to give some of them Jedi Mind Powers, which is kind of cool, but besides the point). Siddhartha (soon to be known as the Buddha) leaves their company. He has learned to astrally project into the corpse of a jackal (another cool trick) but he knows the bitter truth: he is no better at being a Human Being than he was before. Eventually, the Buddha will name his philosophy of food, of pleasure, of appetites: the Middle Path. Not none. Not all. But some.

The Torah has many, many rules that are concerned with curbing the appetites, focusing the soul, and strengthening the community. It even has rules whose purpose we don’t know. But one thing is for sure; it has so. Many. Rules. And I’m okay with these rules. It made us – and continues to make us – into who we are as a people.

But what, this week’s Parsha says, should we do if you aren’t satisfied with the course load. What if, rather than go deeper into your studies, bolstering your learning, making connections – you want extra credit? Then this is what you can do: give up wine, haircuts, and graveyards. And when you’re done with this unnecessary extra credit, says the Torah, you must offer a sin offering. Why? For all the energy and time you wasted trying to do more, more, more – rather than focus on the work right in front of you.

Soon, we will be heading into summer vacation. Students have summer reading. Adults have summer reading. We have projects and camps and letters to write and families to care for and children who need us and elderly parents who need us and an entire world that needs us.

But what if that isn’t enough? What if I need to do more to earn God’s love?

Says the Torah: don’t do more. Just do you.