"A man who takes a vow..."—Numbers 30:3.

Everything in this world was created for a purpose, namely, to be used in the service of G‑d. When we make use of any one of G‑d's creations in a way that conforms to that purpose, we elevate that object, place or situation from the ordinary to the sacred.

The exception that proves this rule is that G‑d has placed prohibitions on certain things and told us not to make use of them. While the norm is that whatever exists in this world exists so that we may elevate it through reverent and mindful use, there are some things that we are incapable of using to serve G‑d. To engage ourselves with them would only drain us, thus for our own benefit, G‑d has declared them off limits. However, all that G‑d has permitted in this vast world can and must be used for a higher purpose.

Many people think that we recovering alcoholics look down on alcohol, but the very opposite is trueIn this light, it should come as no surprise that, in principle, the Torah disapproves of vows of abstention. If G‑d, by rendering something permissible, has indicated that something is able to be used for His service, then it is not only our privilege to make use of it, but our obligation. By refusing to engage in an experience that G‑d has permitted, one shirks the responsibility of elevating that which has the potential to be elevated.

Yet, as we read in this week's Torah reading, the Torah does provide a framework within which to make such vows. If 'swearing off' is generally discouraged, why then does the Torah tell us how to do so?

For those who have forfeited their ability to make productive use of one or another of G‑d's creations, the answer may already be obvious.

Abstention from that which is permissible to other people is a humbling admission of defeat – "There's something in the world that G‑d created for a purpose; other people are capable of using it for that purpose; I cannot."

Our recovery from alcoholism requires that we forbid to ourselves that which G‑d permitted to all other men.* Consider the fact that if there were no redeeming purpose for alcohol, G‑d would have forbidden it outright, but He did not. Other people can and do use it productively. For us alcoholics, however, the only way for us to serve G‑d through alcohol is by respecting its power and acknowledging that, for us, it is beyond our reach.

It is interesting that one of the standard verbal formulas for pronouncing a vow is: "May such-and-such be to me as if it were a sacrificial offering." What is the meaning of this expression?

When one designates an animal to be a sacrifice for the Temple, that animal may no longer be appropriated for personal use. It becomes 'set apart' and 'holy' (which in Hebrew is actually the same word). Similarly, when a person makes a vow to abstain from something and to 'set it apart,' he concedes to its 'holiness.' He denounces his right to make use of that thing because he acknowledges that its power is too great for him to effectively utilize.

Many people think that we recovering alcoholics look down on alcohol, but the very opposite is true. No one respects alcohol like an alcoholic. We know all too well of its power. We have set it apart from our lives precisely because we realized that its power is beyond our ability to bear. And in so admitting, we came to realize that G‑d has a different purpose for alcohol in our lives – as the embodiment of the truth that we must rely on a Higher Power and give ourselves over to His loving care.


*Because of the seriousness of violating a vow, even one who does resolve to abstain should not formally verbalize his vow. Besides, we as alcoholics know all too well that promises are not what keep us sober, but rather working our spiritual program. We don't officially swear off, we just stay away from the first drink.