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The Narcissist & the Nazirite

Narcissism in Greek Mythology and the Talmud

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    3828 views
  • May 28, 2015
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  • 10 Sivan 5775
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Class Summary:

This essay examines two stories on the theme of narcissism—one in Greek literature, the other in Talmud, demonstrating to us the eternal relevance of Torah to our lives and struggles. Where does the term narcissism come from? From Greek mythology. The Greeks told the story of a young man named Narcissus, who was remarkably handsome—so handsome that even one of the pagan Greek gods, Echo, fell in love with him. But a very similar story is related in the Talmud as happening hundreds of years earlier, when a most handsome young man became a Nazirite and cut off his beautiful hair.

The Golfers

A rabbi, a teacher, a millionaire, and a narcissist were golfing together.

As they walked the course, they came up behind a foursome that was moving very slowly, and that didn't offer to let them play through. Calling over the club pro, the foursome inquired about the poor sportsmanship of the slow group. The pro explained that the slow golfers were blind. The rabbi said: Oh, G-d bless them, I will keep them in my prayers. The teacher said, I will tell my students how inspiring they are. The millionaire said, I will offer to pay their greens fees for the year. The narcissist said, why do they have to play by day and occupy the field? If their blind anyway, why can't they play at night?

This little anecdote describes the narcissist, the person who sees the entire world as a mirror.

The Definition

The term “Narcissism” was first coined by Henry Havelock Ellis, a British physician and scientist living in the 19th century, and then explained by Dr. Sigmund Freud in his book “On Narcissism,” published in 1914. It was the Jewish Austrian-American psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut who first coined the phrase “NSD,” Narcissistic Personality Disorder, in 1968, describing a person who is in need of endless admiration and adulation; experiences a sense of superiority toward others; feels that all his expectations must be met. This person is always ready to use people to meet his goals and will have no issues lying in order to self-inflate and discuss his accomplishments. He also knows not how to show empathy to others. This person often has wide, fast mood swings, and will fantasize about unlimited success, money, and power. He can be explosive, abusive, needs his world to be perfect, and wants everyone to love him.

There are both overt and covert narcissists. The covert ones are beloved and appreciated, but are secretly selfish, calculating, controlling, angry and vindictive. Covert narcissists create an illusion of selflessness while gaining from their elevated status. Although they share similar basic traits with the overt narcissist, i.e., the need for attention, affirmation, approval and recognition, they are stealthier about hiding their selfish and egocentric motives. These narcissists are able to trick others, sometimes even themselves, into believing they are honest, altruistic and empathetic individuals. The fascinating thing is that many narcissists are not even aware that they are narcissistic. It is deeply etched into their psyche and behaviour, and it is the only way of life they know.

Today we want to examine two stories on the theme of narcissism—one in Greek literature, the other in the Talmud.

The Myth of Narcissus

Where does the term “Narcissism” come from?

Henry Havelock Ellis retrieved it from Greek mythology. The Greeks told the story of a young man named Narcissus, who was remarkably handsome—so handsome that even one of the pagan Greek gods, Echo, fell in love with him. (The English word “echo,” was named after this Greek god, since she was supposedly cursed not to have her own voice, but only to repeat what others say.) One day Narcissus arrived at a pond, where he saw for the first time his reflection in the water. He was so taken by the splendor of his reflection that he did not want to move, but stood there gazing and admiring his own reflection in the pond. At some point he declared to his reflection, “I love you.” Echo saw him, and repeated, “I love you.” Narcissus thought his reflection had spoken, and he continued to gaze at himself in the water for days and weeks. At the end, he takes his own life.

The term Narcissism coined in the 19th century was named after that Greek. The narcissist too is incapable of connecting with anything or anybody, but a reflection of himself or herself. The narcissist is so in love with his/her reflection that they have no space for genuine concern or love for anything or anybody else.

Question: How do you drown a narcissist? Answer: Put a mirror at the bottom of the swimming pool.

Shimon the Righteous

This Greek story has been authored around the year 50 BCE, 120 years before the destruction of the Second Temple. Yet a similar story is found in Jewish sources taking place a few centuries earlier. The end of the Jewish story is completely different, capturing the key distinctions between Greek mythology and Judaism.

The story is quoted three times in the Talmud (in tractate Nedarim and Nazir in the Babylonian Talmud, and in tractate Nedarim in the Jerusalem Talmud.[1] It will actually be studied by thousands of Jews in the next few days in the Daf Yomi cycle). It is about a young handsome man who came to Shimon Hazaddik, Shimon the righteous one, who served as a High Priest in the beginning of the Second Temple era, around 300 BCE.

Shimon Hatzaddik was one of the last surviving members of the “Men of the Great Assembly,” who rebuilt Judaism during the onset of the second Temple era. He was a legend even in his own day—considered the greatest Jew of his generation. He is the one who famously stated that “The world stands on three pillars: Torah study, prayer, and kindness.”[2]

The Nazirite

In order to appreciate the story, a brief introduction is necessary.

In this week’s portion, Naso (Numbers chapter six), the Torah relates the laws of the Nazirite— a man or woman dedicated to holiness in an extra intense way. The Nazir was an individual who undertook, usually for a limited period of time, to observe special rules of holiness and abstinence: not to drink wine or other intoxicants (including anything made from grapes), not to have his hair cut and not to defile himself by contact with the dead. His vow was for a fixed term (though it could also be for life), at the end of which he would come to the Temple, cut and burn his hair there, and bring a special offering. Samson was the most famous of all Nazarites.

(In our generation too, there were too famous Jewish Nazirites—the Ragatchover Gaon, Rabbi Yosef Razin (1858-1936), Rabbi of Dvinsk, Poland,[3] and Rabbi David Cohen, known as “Reb David Hanazir” (1887-1972), a student of Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, first chief rabbi of Israel, and the father of the present chief Rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Shaar Yeshuv Cohen.)

The Handsome Shepherd

Now, Shimon Hatzaddik as a rule was critical of Nazirites. He felt that under ordinary circumstances it should not be done. It is too difficult a life style and most Nazirites will regret their vow at some point. Thus he never ate of the sacrifices they offered. But there was one exception described in the Talmud:

נדרים ט, ב: אמר שמעון הצדיק: מימי לא אכלתי אשם נזיר טמא אלא אחד. פעם אחת בא אדם אחד נזיר מן הדרום, וראיתיו שהוא יפה עינים וטוב רואי, וקווצותיו סדורות לו תלתלים. אמרתי לו: בני, מה ראית להשחית את שערך זה הנאה? אמר לי: רועה הייתי לאבא בעירי. הלכתי למלאות מים מן המעיין, ונסתכלתי בבבואה שלי, ופחז עלי יצרי ובקש לטורדני מן העולם. אמרתי לו: רשע! למה אתה מתגאה בעולם שאינו שלך, במי שהוא עתיד להיות רימה ותולעה? העבודה שאגלחך לשמים! מיד עמדתי ונשקתיו על ראשו. אמרתי לו: בני, כמוך ירבו גוזרי נזירות בישראל. עליך הכתוב באומר: "איש כי יפליא לנדור נדר נזיר להזיר לה'".

Shimon Hatzaddik related this story:

Once, a young man a Nazirite came from the South [of Israel] to the Holy Temple. I saw that he had beautiful eyes, a handsome appearance and long, braided hair. He came to the High Priest and sage Shimon Hatzaddik and told him that he had just completed a term as a Nazir, and was now going to shave off the hair on his head.

Shimon Hatzaddik asked him, “What made you decide to take this vow and destroy your beautiful hair?”

The young man replied: “I worked for my father as a shepherd in my city, and I went to draw water from a wellspring. I began to gaze at my reflection in the water. When I saw how gorgeous and attractive I am, how awesome my hair looked, my evil inclination asserted itself and urged me to engage in immoral and promiscuous behavior, and thus destroy my world. I told my evil inclination: ‘Wicked one! Why are you so arrogant in a world that does not belong to you? Why are you so arrogant about a body that will end up rotting in the grave, eaten by worms?! I swear, I will shave off your hair for the sake of heaven!’”

“Immediately I stood up and kissed him on his head. And I said, ‘May there be many more Nazirites like you among Israel.’”

The Danger

This young man, just like the Greek character Narcissus, was beautiful and attractive. His body was comely, his physique exquisite, and his hair enthralling. In the Greek myth, Narcissus falls in love with the figure to the point of self-destruction. In the Jewish story, in stark contrast, the handsome shepherd is keenly aware of the danger of self-worship. He knows, in his own words, that he is capable of becoming a hedonistic glutton, of fulfilling every promiscuous craving. With such magnificent hair and striking features he can get his hands on perhaps anyone he desires, and as a result, ultimately—as he put it—lose his entire world. He realizes how easily he can forfeit his integrity and balance, if he aggrandizes that which will “end up rotting in the grave.”

He decides to do something drastic: Dedicate his beauty to G-d. He takes his hair and burns it in the Holy Temple, as is the tradition of every Nazirite.

Celebrities

This Talmudic story should be obligatory study for every celebrity. These people in particular are prone to the danger of living a lie, not allowing themselves to enter into real relationships with people who will speak truth to beauty and power. All men and women of fame, affluence and power ought to internalize this story. If only they would understand, like that young Shepherd from the south, the perils and risks of being so beautiful, so talented, so famous, so successful, so wealthy, so brilliant, so artistic, so charismatic, so captivating, it can save their future.

And who of us is not a narcissist in some measure? Each of us—at least I can speak of myself—has a tinge, or more than tinge, of narcissism, and must confront it on a daily basis.

In the best-selling book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, by the cultural historian Christopher Lasch (1932–1994), the author believes that our western culture has essentially become a “narcissistic culture,” in which we have become pathologically obsessed with ourselves above anything and everything. Where it used to be that people believed in making sacrifices for something outside of themselves—say for marriage, family, children—today more and more people feel that they want to gaze at nothing but their own image for their entire life.

The Deeper Cause

This story of the shepherd may contain yet deeper message about narcissism.

It's not known what causes narcissistic personality disorder. As with other mental disorders, the cause is likely complex. Narcissistic personality disorder may be linked to nurture, nature, genetics or psychobiology.

Yet some scholars have speculated that it often stems from the person experiencing, consciously or unconsciously, a major void in self-worth and dignity. To compensate for sensing no real place in this world, and feeling very unsafe in an essentially overwhelming universe, this person developed the need to focus on himself or herself exclusively. If my “I” does not really exist, creating space for the “Thou” is too scary and difficult.

What this noble shepherd can teach us is not only the honesty of knowing what great beauty or success can do to you; but also a method to confront it. If you realize that this world belongs to G-d, and that you were created by G-d to serve Him in His world, you discover that your identity has true and infinite Divine value. You need not resort to narcissism. G-d loves you unconditionally, and you can thus love others the same way. You will not melt and die from opening your heart to others.

When your vulnerable and bare core emerges, you will not fall into the abyss; rather, you will find the arms of G-d embracing you.

If you want to live, you need to be able to tear yourself away from your own image—even though you are beautiful—and dedicate your life to something that is greater than just your frail and fearful ego.

Because to live means to live for.

_______________________________

[1] Talmud Nazir 4b; Nedarim 9b; Talmud Yerueshalmi Nedarim 36a.
[2] The Talmud (Yuma 69a) and Josephus relate this fascinating tale about Shimon: When Alexander the Great—the great Greek warrior who conquered almost the entire world (his tutor was the Greek philosopher Aristotle)—marched through the Land of Israel in the year 333 BCE, Shimon Hatzaddik, dressed in his eight priestly robes, went out to greet him . As soon as Alexander saw him, the most powerful person in the world descended from his chariot and bowed respectfully before him. When Alexander's courtiers criticized his act, he replied that he had had a vision in which he had seen an old man, dressed in special garb, who had predicted his victory. When he saw the visage of Shimon Hatzaddik, he realized that this was the man. Alexander demanded that a statue of himself be placed in the Holy Temple; but Shimon explained to him that this was impossible, promising him instead that all the sons born of priests in that year should be named Alexander. Hence, despite the fact that Alexander is a Greek name, at that moment it was converted into a Jewish name to this very day.
[3] It is unclear if he was indeed a Nazir, which is why his hair was so long. In Hearos Ubiurim issue 920, Rabbi Leibel Groner relates that the Lubavitcher Rebbe told his father, Rabbi Mordechai Groner, that he heard from his own father in law, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, that his father, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber, asked him how the Rogatchover drinks the four cups of wine on Pesach since he is a Nazir. At a meeting in 1988, the Lubavitcher Rebbe asked Rabbi Mordechai Savitzki from Boston if he heard that the Rogatchover was a Nazir, which is why he did not cut his hair.

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  • SG

    Shimon G -28 days ago

    https://torahanytime.com/lectures/304616

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  • BS

    Benjamin Silberstein -7 years ago

    Rabbi YY, a great point, wonderful essay. A topic that can use far more awareness than it currently has. I know of some that stepped up to speak about this and were countered by such people, it takes something for a personality as yours to incite this discussion. It's more than important and may hopefully save and/or rescue many kids, fathers and mothers.

    Bracha vhatzlacha

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  • SC

    Sterling Cross -9 years ago

    I like this article very much! However, I do think the criticism of physically attractive people of Hollywood to be a bit much. Many people in Hollywood do not choke on their money and are quite generous in their works of charity. I like the story from the Talmud very much though. I also love beautiful people with short hair, shaven hair, or long hair. The idea of beauty also changes. I actually often like a short haired cut better than long hair.

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  • P

    Pinchos -9 years ago

    Virtually every human has a narcissistic predisposition

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  • AY

    A Yiddene -9 years ago

    Wow very nice Rabbi Jacobson thank you for bringing this subject attention .Many people suffer from being in relationships with narcissists. It's something that unless you've studied well or experienced it's difficult to explain to others.

    Over the years people have asked me why don't I give it a try and marry my ex again. If people could understand what being married to someone who doesn't feel, who has no empathy for others they wouldn't dare suggest that. It pains me all over again when I hear such well meaning "suggestions".

    Is the picture in your article from the book 'malignant self love'? From Dr Sam Vaaknin?
    According to Dr Vaaknin narcissist can't change or get cured they can only be self aware and that is the most as far as healing:(
    Thanks for an amazing article I really enjoyed.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • May 28, 2015
  • |
  • 10 Sivan 5775
  • |
  • 3828 views
  • Comment

Class Summary:

This essay examines two stories on the theme of narcissism—one in Greek literature, the other in Talmud, demonstrating to us the eternal relevance of Torah to our lives and struggles. Where does the term narcissism come from? From Greek mythology. The Greeks told the story of a young man named Narcissus, who was remarkably handsome—so handsome that even one of the pagan Greek gods, Echo, fell in love with him. But a very similar story is related in the Talmud as happening hundreds of years earlier, when a most handsome young man became a Nazirite and cut off his beautiful hair.

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