Chapter 30

3 If a man makes a vow: By taking a vow, a person forbids himself from some activitythat the Torah otherwise permits. In a sense, then, these laws can be seen as a continuation of the lesson of Pinchas: 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 all we can do in this world into three categories: what we must do, what we may do, and what we must not do. The things we must do are essential for our fulfillment of our role as bearers of God’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.

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 God 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,”1 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?!”2

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.”3 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.”4 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.5 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.6

Nonetheless, the Torah states that there are specific individuals who 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 a greater part of his environment.

This further explains why the laws of vows and oaths were taught now, 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 God. 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.7

If a man makes a vow: If a person consecrates fruit as a sacrifice for the Temple, even though fruit cannot be used for such a purpose, it becomes holy and it is forbidden to eat it. This is because he can indeed sanctify an animal for sacrificial purposes and cause it to be forbidden for other mundane uses.8 The power to consecrate extends beyond the realm of its fundamental sphere of influence.

This teaches us the magnificent power of speech. We are empowered to transform the mundane into the holy, to elevate a simple beast into a sacrificesimply by stating such an intention. Certainly, we must then be careful to use this gift only for the loftiest and most desirable ends.9

He shall not violate his word: The word for “violate” in Hebrew (yachel) comes from the word for “profane” or “unholy” (chol). The inner meaning of this verse is therefore that a person should not make his word “profane”; even our most mundane matters should also be imbued with holy intentions and be consistent with the greater purpose of Creation, making a home for God in this world.10

4 If a woman makes a vow : The following individuals can annul a woman’s vows:

  • A father can annul his daughter’s vows as long as she is not married;
  • a betrothed woman’s fiancé and father can together annul her vows; and
  • a husband can annul his wife’s vows.

The man in question can annul his daughter’s/fiancé’s/wife’s vows if they are in some way detrimental to her (or in the case of the fiancé/husband, detrimental to their relationship), and his annulment actually contravenes the force of her vow, thereby canceling it.

In addition, a sage or rabbinical court can invalidate any individual’s vows if his vow is proving more of a hindrance than a help in his life and/or relationship with God. In this case, however, the sage or court do not have the legal authority to annul the vow;11 they rather interrogate the individual and determine whether he would have made the vow had he known it would lead to the present consequences. If the answer is “no,” it is established that the vow was made under false pretenses and is therefore retroactively void.

The annulment of the father/fiancé/ husband is analogous to the case in which a person has made a formal vow but is ready to progress to the point where he no longer needs it, since he can restrain himself on his own. Such an individual still needs to abstain from worldly pleasures in some way, but he is ready—with the proper inspiration—to do so without the legal crutch of the vow.

The invalidation of the vow by the sage or court is analogous to the case in which a person is successfully restraining himself on his own but is now ready to ascend to the maturity of consciousness in which the material world poses no threat to his Divine orientation. He can partake of the world’s pleasures in a Godly way. The sage or court, in this case, simply has to reveal the latent, inner Divinity of the individual’s soul; this releases him from his need for abstinence. In fact, it becomes retroactively evident that, had he manifested this level of consciousness all along, there would have been no need for abstinence to begin with.12

If a woman makes a vow: A father can annul vows his daughter makes before her marriage. A husband can annul vows his wife makes after her marriage. A fiancé, since he acts together with the father, can annul vows his fiancée made before her betrothal, i.e., even before he established any connection with her. Thus, in this sense, a man possesses greater power over his wife’s vows when he is only her fiancé than he will when he becomes her husband.

Allegorically, the relationship between God and the Jewish people is analogous to that of a married couple. Exile is similar to the state of betrothal: the relationship has been established, but it will only be consummated with marriage, the Redemption. This idea applies to each Jew’s own personal relationship with God. When his consciousness of God is full and consummate, he is in a state of redemption, and is “married.” When his Divine consciousness is suspended or latent, he is in exile, and is only “betrothed.” Since he is “betrothed” to God, he has indeed renounced all other “relationships,” and the world’s various diversions have no sway over him. But he can produce no “offspring”—truly good deeds, which increase Divine consciousness in reality—until he is “married.”

Still, there is an advantage to the state of “betrothal.” A fiancé knows that he cannot annul his fiancé’s vows on his own; he needs the help of the father in order to do this. He is thus protected from falling into the trap of self-reliance and egocentricity. Similarly, one who knows that he has not yet consummately united with God knows that he still needs His help in elevating the world’s materiality. He is spared the feeling of self-reliance that endangers someone who has achieved full Divine consciousness.

Furthermore, thanks to his reliance on the father, the fiancé can annul vows made prior to the betrothal. Allegorically, this means that when a Jew relies on and elicits God (the Father)’s help, he can overcome his relationship with materialism, his connection to the world before his “betrothal.” Since materialism is ingrained into the reality of our world and we are naturally entrenched in it, it is virtually impossible for an individual to free himself of its shackles on his own.

The ideal then, is to preserve the feeling of being only “betrothed” to God even after having become “married.” This is made possible by remembering that since God is infinite, there are infinite levels of relationship to be attained with Him, and therefore, every consummation of consciousness becomes a state of “betrothal” relative to the higher state of consummation to come.13

a closer look

[7] If she becomes betrothed: The terms “betrothed” [אירוסין, eirusin] and “fiancé(e)” [ארוס/ה, arus(ah)]as used here indicate a precise and binding legal status between the man and woman, contracted by specific legal procedures. In Jewish law, “betrothal” is an intermediate state between singlehood and marriage, in which the couple are legally husband and wife but are not yet allowed to live together or cohabit.14 Betrothal cannot be dissolved simply by consent; if the betrothed couple wish to separate they must undergo a halachic divorce.15 In ancient times, it was customary for couples to become betrothed and then married 12 months later, in order to give the families time to prepare for the wedding.16 Nowadays, this practice has been largely discontinued, and halachic betrothal takes place as the first part of the marriage ceremony. Thus, when couples today decide to get married, they should never be referred to as being “betrothed” [arusim], but only as being “engaged” [mishtadchim, etc.].17

Chapter 31

2 Take revenge for the Israelites: In the battles against Sichon and Og, Moses played an active role. Here, however, he merely prepared the people for war while Pinchas actually led them in battle.

This is because God commanded the Jewish people to take vengeance against Midian because they enticed them into the idolatry of Pe’or.18 No Midianite territory was captured or annexed to the Land of Israel. As we mentioned previously, the idolatry of Pe’or is essentially hedonism: the indulgence in sensual pleasure as an end in itself rather than for the higher purpose of experiencing Divinity or infusing Divinity into reality. This attitude toward life is the antithesis of the lifework of Moses. Hedonism implies that physical pleasures are either too “low” and vulgar to serve Divine purposes or are somehow off-limits for the holy life. Moses, the channel through whom God gave the Torah, championed the truth that Godliness can and must pervade all of reality; it must even dictate our approach to physical pleasures. In fact, if anything, Moses’ lifework proclaimed that it is specifically in the lowest end of creation that the potential for Divinity is the greatest. He used this argument to wrest the Torah from the angels and expose the error of the spies. Unfortunately, the misconstruction of this appreciation for the lowest rungs of spirituality led to the error of Pe’or. In order to wipe out the source of this error, Moses’ inspiration and example was necessary.

This theoretical groundwork, which destroys the philosophy of Pe’or’s mental stranglehold, is sufficient to prevent a person from falling into the trap in the future. But to “avenge” the evil, i.e., to repair the damage already done and root out any trace of its effect that might surface sometime in the future, more is required than the detached arguments of a philosophical theoretician. The battle itself was therefore led by Pinchas, because Pinchas embodied the ethic and zeal of self-sacrifice. The inspired zeal that makes a person incensed enough to go beyond the letter of the law—and even risk his life—reveals a higher, purer level of motive and consciousness than normal.

Similarly, in our personal confrontation with the deception of Pe’or, we need to emulate both Moses and Pinchas. From Moses we learn to cultivate the proper, Jewish attitude toward materialism and its sensuality; from Pinchas we learn to attack its effects on us with righteous indignation.19

3 The revenge of God against Midian: The word “Midian” in Hebrew is derived from the word for “strife” or “argument” (madon).20

This evil of baseless hatred had to be eliminated before we entered the Land of Israel, since baseless hatred is obviously at odds with the harmonious functioning of society that is the prerequisite for attaining any national goals, let alone that of promulgating Divinity in the world. Indeed, the Jews succumbed to this evil during the era of the second Temple and this is what brought about the Temple’s destruction and the present exile.21

The root of baseless hatred is ego. An egocentric person feels threatened by anyone who opposes (or seems to oppose) his inflated sense of self. Any positive quality evinced by the other person diminishes his own importance, so the egocentric person will desperately seek to delegitimize the other person. Although he may not seek to actively harm him, he will be secretly pleased when the other person suffers, or at least not be troubled. Furthermore, egocentricity blinds a person to other people’s good qualities; since he is not sincere in his relationship with God and the world, he cannot believe that others are, either.

In contrast, someone who is not plagued with egocentricity will focus only on other people’s good qualities. Their suffering will genuinely trouble him, since he will judge them favorably and find no justification for their suffering. If he does find some fault with someone else, he will admonish him in accordance with the Torah’s guidelines for doing so, but he will not hate him.

Similarly, rather than viewing differences of opinion as an affront to his selfhood, the selfless person will view them as opportunities to arrive at higher, more comprehensive perceptions of truth. His lack of concern for his own image will also enable him to bare his shortcomings to another person and seek his guidance, thereby allowing him to solve his problems and progress in his self-refinement.22

Whoever is an enemy of the Jewish people is an enemy of God: This idea is expressed specifically in the context of the war with Midian because the Midianites in fact attacked both God and the Jewish people. They sought to physically destroy the Jews, and the means they used to try to do this was to entice them into sin, thus attacking God.23

Whoever is an enemy of the Jewish people is an enemy of God: The vengeance God sought against Midian was in response to the death of thousands of Jews that resulted from the encounter with Midian. These Jews died because the Midianite women enticed them into idol worship and moral transgressions. We see here how much God loves His people: He considers someone who opposes and attacks even transgressors such as these as if he had attacked God Himself.24

Inner Dimensions

[3] The revenge of God against Midian: The Name of God used in this verse is the Name Havayah, indicating that the evil embodied by Midian opposes specifically this Name of God.

The Name Havayah (which means “the One who brings into being”) alludes to the various forces of God’s energy He used and uses to create the world. These creative forces are different and even opposing, but they function harmoniously because they exhibit no self-assertion; they exist only to actualize God’s creative will. Thus, the Midianite egocentrism that spawns contention and strife undermines the harmonious functioning of the forces God uses to continuously create the world.

This is an additional reason why this war had to be led by Moses. The only way for there to be cooperation and peace between people in this world is when they submit to the higher authority of the Torah. Firstly, without this submission, who is to say whose authority is more legitimate? Secondly, the Torah itself fosters peace, as it is said, “its ways are the ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” Since Moses was both the channel through whom God gave the Torah and the personification of selflessness, he had to lead the war against Midian.25

4 From all the tribes of Israel: Unlike other wars, the Levites were conscripted to fight in this one and took a portion of the booty. This is because the purpose of this war, as we said, was to uproot the idolatry of Pe’or, the misuse and abuse of gross materiality. The Levites, consecrated from birth to the service of God, are always in danger of thinking that the proper response to the dangers of materiality is to renounce it altogether. Therefore, it was necessary to engage them in this war in order that they learn to fully appreciate the value of the elements of creation on the lower rungs of spirituality.

The lesson for us here is that the extent to which we dedicate ourselves to spiritual pursuits should not cause us to disparage those “beneath” us. As the sages have instructed us, “Be humble before all men.”26 Everything and everyone has some positive aspect for us to value and learn from, no matter how holy we may be or have become.27

The Torah goes into great detail about the booty of Midian and its purification in preparation for Jewish use and is quite terse about the details of the battle itself. This, again, is because the purpose of the war with Midian was not to conquer them or their land but to illustrate the proper attitude toward materiality.28

17 You shall kill every woman who can have carnal intercourse with a man: The Midianite women who had seduced the Israelite men clearly deserved the death penalty, for they were guilty of causing them to sin and had thus proven themselves to be either outright malicious or incapable of standing up to mass evil. Those who did not participate in Balaam’s scheme (if there were such) but were simply non-virgins had to be killed because their attitudes toward carnality and femininity had already been spoiled by the relations they had engaged in as part of the corrupt Midianite society. Their attitudes and jadedness rendered them not only unfit to join the ranks of the Jewish people but a dangerous influence that could not be allowed to seep into the society of holiness and corrupt it. But why was it necessary to kill the Midianite women who were merely old enough for carnal relations, even if they were still virgins?

Presumably, they had to be killed because the very fact that they had reached puberty and were therefore ready at any time to join the ranks of the carnally active women meant that they already considered themselves part of the depraved Midianite culture and had absorbed its values. This put them in the same category as their experienced compatriots.29

Inner Dimensions

[21] The fundamental difference between ritual defilement (tumah) and absorption of forbidden food is that the latter penetrates into the vessel, while the former resides spiritually around the vessel. Thus, a vessel that has absorbed forbidden food needs to be immersed in boiling water or heated until white-hot in order to make it physically release the forbidden food it has absorbed, while a vessel that has been defiled needs only to be immersed in a mikveh—whose waters merely surround the vessel from without and do not physically affect the walls of the vessel in any way.

Inasmuch as our sense of logic is tied largely to our physical senses, the process used to make a vessel give up the forbidden food it has absorbed seems more logical than the process used to purify a vessel from ritual defilement. It goes somewhat against the grain of logic to say that immersing a vessel in a specified volume of water originating from a specified source can somehow affect it.

Ritual defilement by contact with a corpse is even more abstract than regular ritual defilement, so the means used to purify it—sprinkling a few drops of a specially prepared solution on the outside of the affected person or vessel—are even more “spiritual” and counter logic even more.

This explains how Moses erred regarding the power of the solution of the ashes of the red cow: Moses was the “escort of the King” (God), and looked at reality from the higher, Divine perspective. Accordingly, he felt that the potency of the solution of the ashes of the red cow should be sufficient to penetrate the innermost aspects of the person or vessel: an overall change in a person’s attitude should by right affect all aspects of his or her life, down to the minutest details.

Eleazar, however, was the priest, the “escort of the Queen” (the people). He looked at reality from the earthly perspective, and therefore knew that sweeping, overall changes are not enough; the individual must work on his or her inner self directly, as well.30

Chapter 32

1 The descendants of Reuben and Gad had an abundance of livestock: As was explained above,31 the war with Midian demonstrated that the proper attitude toward the lower elements of creation is not to shun them but to elevate them: to reveal their Divine dimension and thereby harness them for promoting holiness in the world. The tribes of Reuven and Gad, seeing that this is the case, reasoned that the territory outside of the holy Land of Israel was of a lower spirituality and therefore settling it and utilizing it for holy purposes would accomplish more than settling the Land of Israel.

For this same reason, they mentioned their cattle before their children; animals are a “lower” form of life than people, and therefore the tribes of Reuven and Gad appreciated the challenge they represented more.

Thus, their mistake was the opposite of the mistake of the spies and their generation. The spies disdained becoming involved with materiality, while the tribes of Reuven and Gad overemphasized its importance.

At the same time, their approach to the elevation of reality betrayed a certain escapism. The fact that the Levites had been conscripted into the war against Midian had showed them that even those dedicated to the most sublime forms of Divine service can and must work to elevate reality. They therefore preferred to be shepherds, since this occupation is conducive to a meditative lifestyle and distances a person from the bustle of city life. They felt that it was possible to accomplish God’s ends while removed from the realities of civilization.

Moses was initially opposed to their proposal, since he felt that if the people would enter the Land of Israel and capitalize on its inherent superior spirituality, the spiritual energy generated would be so great that it would draw into it the spiritual potentials of the rest of the world. This would make it unnecessary to actively seek out the spiritual potentials outside the holy land. Indeed, something of this nature actually occurred much later, in the era of King Solomon. His Divine wisdom was so great and manifested so much Divinity that it awoke the slumbering spiritual potentials of the outlying lands and drew them toward their center of gravity. This will be the case in the messianic future, as well.

But when the tribes of Reuben and Gad pointed out to Moses that Divine providence indicated that this land was meant for them—“[it is] a land [fit] for livestock, and your servants possess livestock”—he agreed that God was, in effect, offering them the challenge of elevating this region and it was proper for them to accept it. Nonetheless, he stipulated that they first enter the holy land together with their brethren, in order to experience firsthand the purity of life in it. This way they would be properly equipped to retain the force of idealism required when descending to elevate the lower levels of reality.

Moreover, Moses stipulated that the tribes of Reuben and Gad be the leaders of the conquest of Israel.32 By leading the conquest and thereby cultivating self sacrifice, they would become sufficiently strong in their commitment to God’s purposes to be able to successfully pass the test of living outside the holy land. At the same time, they would gain the experience of having lived for years in a non-pastoral context and learned to appreciate it. This would ensure that when they returned to their shepherding it would not be an escape from reality.33

37 The descendants of Reuben built: The original names of these cities were associated with the idolatries their original inhabitants practiced in them. Changing their names was an act of conquest, of taking something formerly associated with idolatry and appropriating it for holy purposes. In this sense, the tribe of Reuben was continuing the task begun with the war against Midian and Moses’ stipulation that they cross the Jordan with their brothers: that of elevating the lowest ends of the spiritual continuum to holiness.34

Inner Dimensions

[41] “The villages of Yair”: When he renamed the villages, Yair called them chavot (instead of one of the more usual terms, banot or kefarim).

The basic reason for this is because the word chavot is related to the word for “life” (chai), indicating that he intended them to be a memorial to his life.

On a deeper level, however, this term expressed the spiritual transformation Yair intended for these villages to undergo. Idolatry, the antithesis of Divine consciousness, is equivalent to spiritual death: the idolater severs himself from God, the source of life. By including these villages in the Jewish national homeland, Yair was transforming them from domains of death to gardens of life.

Furthermore, the word Yair means “will shine,” so Chavot Yair means “Locales of life where Divine light will shine.”

The deeper reason why Yair renamed only the villages this way is because the culture of the village is less sophisticated than that of the city and thus represents a more raw, unrefined level of Divine consciousness. (We are contrasting the village with a well-run and enlightened city, not the degenerate hotbed of vice the term “city” has unfortunately come to connote in modern times.) Transforming the village into a Godly setting thus captures the essence of our Divine mission in this world—to transform even the aspects of reality that are furthest removed from Divinity into God’s home on earth.35