Blog - Torah Insights

Engage or Disengage? - מטות -מסעי

Engage or Disengage? 

Rabbinic sources offer conflicting messages on whether or not asceticism is a Jewish value. On the one hand, our sages say, "Are not those things which the Torah has prohibited sufficient for you that you must forbid additional things to yourself?" On the other hand, the Mishnah declares "vows are a safety fence for abstinence", implying that vowing against engaging in worldly pleasure is a tool to becoming more sanctified. 

Jewish life is focused not on separating from the world but rather on elevating it. When the physical blessings and pleasures are used to enhance a life of holiness and devotion to G-d, they serve a higher purpose and are elevated and transformed into holiness. 

Yet, occasionally there is something that, for whatever reason, poses a challenge to a person, not only is the person incapable of harnessing the pleasure for a holy and productive purpose, but on the contrary, the experience will be destructive, undermining his ability to live a spiritual life. In that case, a vow to separate himself from that item or experience is the right thing to do. 

Our Parsha begins with a discussion about the laws of vows. A woman's vow is binding unless her father or husband chooses to nullify the vow. [The Rabbinic tradition asserts that a man's vow may be nullified by the court under certain circumstances.] The mystical interpretation of the laws of the nullification of the vows is as follows: 

If a woman makes a vow to the Lord, or imposes a prohibition [upon herself] while in her father's house, in her youth:

"A woman in her youth" refers to a Jewish person who has not yet reached full spiritual maturity, and therefore elements of the material world may pose a spiritual threat. Therefore, the person may vow to disengage from the spiritual danger.  

Since the ultimate purpose is not to flee and hide but instead to engage and elevate, the Torah offers two paths that would allow the person to grow to the point where the vow can be nullified, and the formerly prohibited object elevated: the nullification by the father and the nullification by the husband. 

As the Torah states: 

But if her father hinders her on the day he hears it, all her vows and her prohibitions that she has imposed upon herself shall not stand. The Lord will forgive her because her father hindered her…

In Jewish mysticism, "father" is a metaphor for the level of wisdom ("Chochmah") which is accessible on the holy day of Shabbat. On Shabbat the Jew experiences a deeper awareness of the Divine reality. On Shabbat, a Jew can access a place within his awareness where the creation is nothing but an extension of the Divine. 

In addition to the father, there are cases when the husband can nullify the vow: 

But if she is [betrothed] to a man… if her husband hinders her on the day he heard it, he has revoked the vow she had taken upon herself and the utterance which she had imposed upon herself, and the Lord will forgive her.

"If she is betrothed to a man", explain the mystics, refers to a time when the Jew's relationship to G-d develops to the point that the latent, natural love the soul feels for G-d, develops into passionate yearning love, like the love between man and woman. When a Jew is drawn to G-d with passionate love, then, as the verse states regarding man and wife, "they will become one flesh", the Jew senses nothing other than the desire to cleave to G-d. At that point, the vows can be nullified since the person can elevate and sanctify the physical world. 

Adapted from Lekutei Torah, Matos 83:2



The Illogical Cow - חוקת

The Illogical Cow 

Did you ever look at somebody and wonder whether or not they are capable of spiritual healing? Whether or not they are capable of transformation? Did you ever look at yourself and wonder whether you can overcome your inner negativity and external challenges?

Well, Moses himself did wonder. 

The Midrash relates that when God told Moses about the impurity resulting from contact with a human corpse, Moshe’s face turned dark. “How will such a person regain ritual purity?” he wondered. What troubled Moses was the question of how could there be purity and healing for someone who touched a corpse, which symbolizes the most severe form of disconnect from G-dliness, which is synonymous with life. 

God responded by teaching Moses the laws of the red heifer. 

The Torah introduces the law of the red heifer with the words “this is the statute of the Torah”. Statute refers to a commandment that is beyond logic, a commandment that we perform only because G-d decreed it to be so. The red heifer defies logic, it represents God's compassion even to a person who is undeserving because he has strayed too far. The red Heifer defies not only human logic but it transcends Divine logic as well; it affects purity even where there is no logical formula for transformation and healing. The  red cow represents God's compassion that transcends logic, and runs deeper than calculated analysis.

How is this Divine boundless, unconditional compassion elicited?

One of the paradoxical features of the red heifer is that the person who prepares the red heifer to purify the impure, becomes impure himself. This is because G-d’s purifying compassion is elicited specifically when a Jew is prepared to sacrifice his own spiritual purity for the sake of another person. This devotion which transcends calculation and logic, evokes G-d’s unconditional, boundless love, which reaches every person no matter how far he strayed. 

In the words of the Rebbe: 

A person has to be willing to ignore his own concerns to do a favor for another Jew. Moreover, the help which he offers must be given freely, without thought of personal benefit. Our Sages teach: “More than the donor gives to the recipient, the recipient gives to the donor.” But when a person gives with such thoughts in mind ,he has not transcended his limits, and therefore it is impossible for him to draw down G‑d’s essence. When does a person draw down G‑d’s essence? When he does a favor for another person despite the knowledge that he will sustain a personal loss by becoming impure. 

Lekutei Suichos, Chukas vol. 4 

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