Once the Berditchever Rebbe, R. Levi Yitzchak, spent a Shabbos in a village with many non-observant Jews in an attempt to influence them to heighten their Torah observance. At the tish, the communal meal, the Rebbe made Kiddush with much feeling. He then washed his hands and picked up the challos to make the HaMotzi blessing. He gazed upon them with sheer delight and then overcome by happiness, kissed the bread.

One of the non-observant Jews who had come to see the Rebbe turned to a colleague and said: “I have spent my entire life seeking pleasure, but I don’t think I ever experienced as much satisfaction as the Rebbe did when holding those loaves.”

Parshas Mattos

Our Torah reading begins with the concept of vows, relating how a person will take a vow forbidding himself from indulging in a particular material activity or partaking of a food or beverage. Why would a person take a vow? Because he feels he needs a safeguard. He senses that his involvement in a given activity is becoming too difficult to control, so he erects a system of checks and balances that force him to restrain himself. By declaring a particular food or activity forbidden, he makes it certain that he will not indulge in it.

But why is that necessary? If he doesn’t want to indulge, why doesn’t he simply exercise control, why does he need the external restraints of a vow?

Anyone who has ever developed a negative habit knows the answers to these questions. Ask an ex-alcoholic if he can have just one drink, or ask a person who has given up smoking if he can have just one cigarette. They’ll tell you that it’s virtually impossible. Once you start, it’s almost impossible to stop. The only way to avoid sliding down the slippery slope is to stay far away. Theoretically, a person can have always have control over his behavior, but practically, safeguards help.

There is, however, a way to avoid the entire issue. Why does a person become obsessed with a particular activity to the extent that he cannot control himself? Because he feels a need for happiness and satisfaction that he hopes that the particular activity will provide. He continues performing that activity in the hope of receiving that satisfaction until he has developed the habit. Once he has developed the habit, it is hard to overcome it. But if he never develops an obsession, he will not lose his self-control.

But doing that requires having an alternate source of satisfaction. Indeed, our Torah tradition provides us with such a resource. When a person derives satisfaction and pleasure from his spiritual activities, he will not feel lacking, nor will he need something to give him a “high.” When his spiritual activity fills him with energy and vitality, that will become his focus and then he will be able to regard material things with a mature perspective. He will not reject the material, but neither will he be over-excited about it. He will be able to see it with the proper perspective and use it for G‑d’s purposes and not his own indulgence.

In that vein, our Sages point to the verse “Know G‑d in all your ways” and explain that it is central to the Torah’s guidance. “Know[ing] G‑d in all your ways” implies that a person will not be spending all his time in the synagogue or house of study. Instead, he will be involved in “your ways,” in ordinary activities in our material world. Nevertheless, his intent will not to be indulge is own pleasures, but to serve G‑d.

Everything in this world can be used for the service of G‑d. Indeed, that is the reason for its creation as Pirkei Avos teaches us: “Everything which G‑d created in this world, He created solely for His glory.” Hence, there is no activity from which we must refrain and abstain entirely. Yet we should be sure that our involvement in these activities is for the sake of His glory and not our indulgence. In that way, we will able to derive pleasure that is both meaningful and satisfying.

Looking to the Horizon

The ultimate expression of this mindset will come in the era of Mashiach. At that time, we will experience an abundance of material blessings. There will be no famine, nor war, and “good things will flow in abundance.” At the same time, we will not be overly concerned with the physical. On the contrary, “the occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G‑d.”

The two concepts are interrelated. Because of the plenty that we will enjoy, we will not seek satisfaction in material pleasures. Everyone will have enough, so there will be no hunger and lack to push a person to constantly seek more.

But having itself is not enough to satiate a person’s appetite. On the contrary, sometimes the people who have most are the ones constantly driven by desire. Instead, to achieve tranquility, a person must have an alternative source of satisfaction. In that era, such a source of satisfaction will be easily accessible, for “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d” and humanity will find its satisfaction in this pursuit.

We can appreciate a foretaste of the redemption and develop such a mindset today. Since G‑dliness is not openly apparent as it will be in that future era, the satisfaction will not be felt as powerfully. Nevertheless, even today, the motif is operable for once a person genuinely experiences spiritual satisfaction, that will become his fundamental goal in life.