Once two tzaddikim met and discussed their different attainments in Divine service. One of them told the other how he had succeeded in dulling the sensations of his palate. All food tasted the same to him.

“Is your ability to control your sensations so weak that you have to kill them?” his colleague answered. “It is not difficult to divorce oneself from involvement in the world. The challenge of Divine service is to live in the world and use it for G‑d’s purpose.”

Parshas Mattos

This week’s Torah reading focuses on the mitzvah of making vows, whereby a person forbids him- or herself from partaking of certain foods or becoming involved in certain activities. Why would a person make a vow? Because he sees that he is becoming too involved in worldly entities; that his life is becoming too materially oriented. Therefore he seeks a safeguard. The intention of this path of conduct is certainly positive, but it has drawbacks. Our Sages teach: “Why add more prohibitions? Is not what the Torah has forbidden enough?” For G‑d did not create material existence to be ignored, but instead to be used for a G‑dly purpose and intent.

At the heart of this issue is an inner conflict most of us face. Generally, we conceive of a person devoted to spiritual pursuits as otherworldly, somewhat ascetic, and a bit somber — not the kind of person with whom we’d like to relax and spend a Saturday night. And for that matter, not really the kind of person we’d like to be.

Where did this conception come from? There are some spiritual approaches that consider all material involvement as “a necessary evil,” not areas in which G‑d created man to spend his time on. Some get very graphic about how bad material indulgence is and what difficulties it can lead to.

Since people at large aren’t willing to accept such an approach, they go to the other end of the spectrum, seeking out sensual gratification and making that the object of their endeavors. They aren’t necessarily protesting against asceticism. They’re concerned simply with what makes them feel good.

And there are some who vacillate between the two extremes, at times indulging and at times feeling remorse over their deeds and inability to hold themselves back.

Why these two extremes? Because material satisfaction in and of itself is not very uplifting or fulfilling. It does not expand your horizons or enable you to grow. On the contrary, we all know how we can sometimes get caught up in seeking such satisfaction to the exclusion of all else. Then we become coarse and downward oriented. But this is not what we want to do with our lives. After 120 years, no one is going to be proud that he or she ate another potato or piece of steak. We want our lives to have meaning and depth.

On the other hand, we know that we are not angels and we don’t want to pretend that we are.

Judaism offers a resolution to this quandary that satisfies both perspectives: Live in the world, but know that it is G‑d’s world. Be happy. Know how to appreciate the good things in life and do so in a manner that others enjoy your company. However, don’t indulge in material things out of selfish desire. Instead, partake of material things as an act of appreciation to G‑d for creating a world that contains a great variety of good.

A classic example of this concept is Shabbos. We are commanded to honor the Shabbos by partaking of sumptuous foods, wearing our finest garments, and indulging in all forms of delight. The day, however, is “sanctified unto G‑d.” It is His day of holiness. These material forms of satisfaction are mediums with which we can establish contact with Him, not distractions from His service.

In this vein, our Sages taught that the verse “Know Him in all your ways” is “a small passage on which the entire Torah depends.” For the Torah is intended to teach man to relate to G‑d in all forms of experience.

Looking to the Horizon

This motif will reach its consummate fulfillment in the era of the Redemption. At that time, “Good things will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust.”

What is the point of the simile? In the era of the Redemption we will be surrounded by all forms of material satisfaction. It will be an era of peace and prosperity where we will feel no lack.

But material things will not be the center of our focus. We will benefit from all the delights with which the world can provide us, but they will not dominate our attention. On the contrary, we will consider them “as dust.” Our energies will be focused on the spiritual. As the Prophet says, “The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G‑d.” There will be no conflict between the spiritual and the physical, because it will be obvious that the physical is just another expression of G‑dliness.