"When a man makes a vow to G‑d…." (Num. 30:3)

By taking a vow, a person forbids himself from some activity that the Torah otherwise permits. It may be explained that there are times and exigencies that dictate going beyond the prescriptions and proscriptions of the Torah. What are these circumstances?

In general, the Torah divides the world into three categories: things we must do, we may do, and we must not do. The things we must do are essential for our fulfillment of our role as bearers of G‑d's message on earth. The things we may do are not essential but can, if used properly, enhance our spiritual lives and the fulfillment of our purpose. The things we must not do are detrimental to our purposes. Under normal circumstances, these aspects of reality cannot be elevated to divine consciousness by our efforts.

The middle ground is obviously the most fluid. As mentioned, things that fall into this category can become positive forces in life if we use them with the proper intentions. To do so, however, a person has to possess sufficient spiritual fortitude not to be sucked into the sensuality of the material experience and thereby lose his divine orientation.

Sanctify yourself with that which is permitted to you….

On a collective scale, the ability of the Jewish people to elevate certain aspects of this neutral ground has fluctuated throughout history. When the Temple stood, for example, the revelation of the Divine Presence in its precincts imbued even the common folk with a certain amount of holiness that was lacking in subsequent eras. This is the reason behind the various rabbinic decrees and prohibitions that have been added to Jewish observance over time. Most of these originated after the loss of the holy Temple.

Similarly, every individual goes through periods in his life when he is more or less fit to indulge in this or that material pleasure. In general, if a person can indulge in a pleasure that G‑d has put in this world for our enjoyment without compromising his Divine consciousness, he is encouraged to do so. "In the future, every person will be called to account for the pleasures that he encountered but did not partake of" (Jerusalem Talmud, Kidushin 4:12), the sages said. And of a person who took too many vows, they said: "Is that which the Torah has forbidden not enough for you, that you must seek to prohibit yourself from other things as well?! (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:5)

But when a person sees that a particular indulgence affects him negatively, he should at least temporarily renounce it. If he feels incapable of resisting the urge to overindulge, he can make a formal vow, which forbids the indulgence to him just as if it had been forbidden by the Torah. Thus, the sages say: "vows foster abstinence" (Avot 3:13). If, on the other hand, he feels that he is capable of controlling himself, it is better to abstain from the indulgence without the formality of a vow. Regarding this, the Sages say: "sanctify yourself with that which is permitted to you" (Yevamot 20a; Nachmanides on Leviticus 19:2).

Every individual must be honest with himself about which aspects of life he is ready to elevate….

In either case, every individual must be honest with himself about which aspects of life he is ready to elevate and which he is not, and what lengths he must go to in order to curb his appetites. By guarding himself from things that would be detrimental to his divine consciousness, a person both weakens materialism's power over him and increases the power of holiness within him. This, too, gives him more power to resist evil.

Nonetheless, the Torah states that there are specific individuals that can annul vows that others make. This means, in effect, that such individuals are able to grant someone who, on his own, might not be ready to tackle a certain aspect of reality, the ability to do so. Certainly, this is the preferred approach, inasmuch as it both elevates the spiritual stature of the individual and enables him to elevate the spiritual level of more of his environment.

This further explains why the laws of vows and oaths were taught at this time, as the Jewish people were preparing to enter the land of Israel. The purpose of their entry, we know, was to make the physical world a home for G‑d. This they were to do by engaging in the physical work of occupying and working the land and, in general, earning a living and sustaining themselves from the earth's raw materials - all for holy purposes and with holy intentions. Thus, although a person's involvement with physicality may on occasion require him to swear off some aspect of it, he must always remember that the purpose of his life is ideally accomplished by annulling such vows and partaking of life's bounties in holiness.

…the purpose of his life is ideally accomplished by annulling such vows and partaking of life's bounties in holiness.

On a deeper level, the dynamic between abstinence and permissiveness is relevant to the mental states a person travels through in his creative life. The force of the initial experience of creative insight, chochma, puts a person into a state of self-transcendence, in which his ego is temporarily suspended. In the subsequent stage of creative development, bina, the new insight is evaluated in terms of and integrated into the existing mental structure. This is an opposite experience, in which the individual is quite aware of himself and is seeking to understand the new insight in terms of what he already knows.

When a person is swept up in the divine transcendence of chochma, he does not need to worry about self-restraint. As long as the self-effacement of this experience lingers, his ego will not seek to derail him into self-indulgence. Once he gets involved - as he must - in the process of bina, analyzing and evaluating the new insight in terms of his established mental perspective on life, he must invoke the protective power of abstinence; he must be wary of his ego's propensity to overemphasize his self-interests.

It is imperative that a person must descend out of his transcendent state of inspiration in order to integrate his new vision into his life. Otherwise, his insight will escape him and disappear. Thus, the process of bina is necessary to growth and development. Nonetheless, in order to keep the development of the idea true to the initial insight that spawned it, the individual must periodically seek to relive something of the experience of chochma. By doing this, he ensures that his bina will not lead him astray. This is akin to the power of the qualified person to annul the vows of one who otherwise requires them, raising him to the level where they are no longer necessary.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 13, pp. 108-9, vol. 33, p. 197; vol. 4, pp. 1078-79
© 2001 Chabad of California/www.LAchumash.org