I recall a certain young man at shul, who, somehow, almost always managed to find something grating or irritating to say in the few short minutes of kibitzing after evening services.

Over time, I built quite a case against this guy in my head, and needless to say, it’s not something I’m immensely proud of. Until one day it hit me that my dislike towards this fellow is literally baseless. I hardly ever exchanged a word with him, and here I was harboring ill feelings in my heart! I decided then and there to right my ship.

For the next couple weeks, I made a point to go out of my way and say something nice to him. Even if I didn’t really need to interact, I forced myself to engage with him and to keep it decidedly positive.

Well, I’m happy to say it worked. It didn’t take long for me to realize that he’s really a swell guy, and we’ve become good friends.

Rendering the Object Sacred

Parshat Matot speaks about a neder, a vow of abstinence:

If a man makes a vow to G‑d or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do.1

Interestingly enough, the way a vow works (as opposed to an “oath,” shevua in Hebrew) is that it places the prohibition on the object, not the person.2 In other words, instead of saying, “I vow not to eat veggie burgers,” you say a formula that effectively declares, “I render veggie burgers, from this day forward, as hot lava to me,” and automatically, you’re no longer allowed to eat them.

To be even more precise, based on the language of the verse, our Sages3 taught that a neder lends the item in question a quasi-holy status, akin to a Temple sacrifice. So, in the event that someone makes a neder about veggie burgers, they don’t become like hot lava, rather they achieve sacred status, and of course, the vow-taker can no longer eat those holy veggie burgers.

But it sounds like an awfully convoluted system. Why can’t we just keep things simple and say, “Hey, look, if you want to stay away from veggie burgers, just tell yourself that you’re no longer going to eat veggie burgers.” Why do we need to go out of our way to render them sacred?

There’s a profound message here.

A Beginner’s Step

Let’s first put things into context.

There’s a lively discussion among the classic Jewish sources about the nobility of vows. Are they a good thing? Should one make vows to abstain from luxuries, or perhaps it’s an unnecessary and false sense of piety?

Due to what appears to be conflicting statements from our Sages, the consensus that emerges is that it depends. For those struggling to contain temptation, extra guardrails are not a bad idea. But for those at a more advanced level of piety, vows are an unnecessary roadblock. To the contrary, such a person should proactively engage with the world around them and do their very best to transform it into something holy.4

So, if you’re barely past first base in your work to contain your physical temptations, please abstain from those veggie burgers if they are the problem. But if you’re already rounding third base and have managed to engage with the world successfully, then please, go get some veggie burgers, make a blessing, and eat them.

Emphasize the Positive

When trying to abstain from something, we tend to focus on its negative qualities. So, back to our veggie burgers, if for whatever reason they happen to be your Achilles heel, the tried and tested way to abstain would be to tell yourself, “Ugh, they’re terrible! Every time I eat them, I end up doing crazy things, and my stomach hurts. Veggie burgers are the worst thing since gunpowder!”

But another way of doing things is to tell yourself just how incredibly holy those veggie burgers are. They’re too hot to handle right now. For whatever reason, in your life, there’s too much potent energy in those veggie burgers, and you’re unable to process it correctly. It’s not that veggie burgers are so terrible. On the contrary—they’re so incredible, you’re unable to use them properly.

As fanciful as it sounds, it wouldn’t be entirely untrue. After all, the Kabbalists teach us that everything in this world has a spiritual source, a Divine energy coursing through it. Thinking about it that way, it is very possible that the Divine energy of veggie burgers is indeed quite potent, and you have been made privy to that power.5

Don’t Fight Darkness, Add Light

This approach provides a remarkably healthy and edifying attitude for dealing with challenges.

At any point, we may find ourselves facing the temptation to do something negative. Perhaps you’ve recently started keeping Shabbat and the urge to reach for your cellphone is getting the better of you. Or maybe an old friend from darker days is back in your life and inviting you to places where you know bad things will happen.

And then there’s the opposition to the good things we do. One day you make a GoFundMe to help a neighbor down on their luck, and then people start spreading rumors that you’re stealing the money.

The question you must ask yourself is, “How am I going to deal with this?”

There are two approaches.

You can deal with it head-on, by fighting. So you get down into the darkness and battle the urge for the cellphone, or try negotiating with your wayward friend. And you go around trying to convince people that you’re not really embezzling funds as per the rumors.

But there’s another way: simply increasing light. You can add in positivity, and eventually, with the abundance of light, the darkness dissipates. Concentrate on how beautiful Shabbat is, and throw yourself into your current lifestyle that makes the outing with your old friend a preposterous idea.

Be so noble, so honest, and so transparent, that rumors of embezzlement are ludicrous.

Instead of groping around in a dark room trying to find your pants, bumping into a hundred objects, simply turn on the light and grab what you need.

This is the message of the neder. When darkness creeps into your life, don’t get your hands dirty. Turn the light on and automatically, the opposition will fall away.6