Engage or Disengage? - מטות -מסעי

Thursday, 28 July, 2022 - 5:28 pm

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



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