“A Time to Embrace,
and a Time to Refrain from Embracing”

1

With regard to vows, the Mishnah states:2 “Vows are a fence for restraint.” By taking vows, and thus refraining from using or doing things that would otherwise be permitted, a person trains himself in restraint. This is an important element of our Divine service, as reflected in our Sages’ charge:3 “Sanctify yourself in what is permitted to you.”

Conversely, the Jerusalem Talmud teaches:4 “Is it not sufficient what the Torah has forbidden to you?” This, however, serves as a directive for a person whose conduct reflects the verse:5G‑d made man just.” When a person lives up to his human potential, he does not have to keep himself from involvement with permitted things. Indeed, he must not practice restraint,6 for he is obliged to elevate entities such as animals, plants, and inanimate matter which are on a lower level than himself.

But there are those who “have sought many forms of deception,”7 i.e., people who seek to concentrate their energies on worldly affairs. Instead of seeing themselves as a medium for G‑dliness, they seek pleasure in material things. Not only do such people not elevate the material entities with which they are involved, the desire and satisfaction they experience draw their souls downward (and also lowers the spiritual level of the objects used). Such persons need the restraint encouraged by vows.8

A similar rationale explains why our Sages ordained many safeguards to the observance of the Torah in the time of the Second Beis HaMikdash. In the era of the First Beis HaMikdash, G‑dliness shone forth overtly. Even in the 70 years of exile following the first destruction, traces of this revelation remained.9

In the era of the Second Beis HaMikdash, by contrast, the light of holiness was lacking,10 thus strengthening the forces of evil.11 As a result, restraints and curbs were employed to help overcome the darkness.12

And from generation to generation, as the darkness has continued to deepen, the Rabbis have added even more restraints and curbs.

This dynamic operates not only in the history of mankind as a whole, but within the personal life of every individual. There are times when G‑dliness shines within a person’s life. At those times, he need not fear involvement with worldly matters, for the world does not conceal G‑dliness for him; on the contrary, it serves to reveal G‑dliness, as it is written:13 “See who created these.”

But there are also times of darkness, when a person does not perceive G‑dliness. At those times, he must employ self-restraint, avoiding involvement even with entities which are permitted. Otherwise, such involvement can drag him to a lower spiritual plane.


Gaining Strength

The advantage of restraint in times of spiritual darkness is twofold:

a) Through restraint, one separates oneself from the darkness of the world. By avoiding the enemy, we do not allow it the opportunity to conflict with holiness.

b) Restraint draws down a higher G‑dly light, and this empowers the forces of holiness.14

Similar concepts apply with regard to vows. The restraint which vows impose, forestalls (to a certain degree) the spiritual decline caused by excessive involvement in material matters. But vows also contribute positive influence, drawing down holiness.15 This empowers a person, and gives him the strength to confront the challenge of evil.


Lending Strength to Others

The fact that the restraint stemming from vows is appropriate in a time of spiritual darkness implies that any person sanctioned to annul vows functions on an elevated spiritual level. Not only does he not need these curbs himself, he is able to strengthen people who would otherwise require a vow, allowing them to persevere in their worldly involvement without stumbling.

For this reason, we see that all those who are given the privilege of nullifying vows are on a higher spiritual level than are the people who take vows. For example, a father can nullify his daughter’s vow because “anything that accrues to her belongs to her father.”16 A husband can nullify his wife’s vows because his wife is considered to be under his authority.17

Surely this applies to a wise man who is given the power to absolve the vows of others.18 In fact, one opinion19 holds that, in this context, the term “wise man” refers to a person ordained with the special semichah that began with Moshe our teacher. Such a person surely stands on a very high spiritual plane.

(Even three simple people are sanctioned to absolve a vow. This power is granted them, however, because they constitute a court of law, and are thus invested with authority beyond that of their individual selves.20 )


Spiritual Parallels

The concept of vows and their nullification, like all concepts in the Torah, applies within both the macrocosm and the microcosm. Generally, we conceive of the person taking a vow and the one revoking it as two different individuals. Within every personality, however, it is possible to conceive of different planes of Divine service: one rung on which a vow is required, and a higher level which enables the vow to be absolved.

Based on the teachings of Kabbalah, Chassidus explains21 that these two planes refer to the powers of Chochmah and Binah. The approach of Binah necessitates vows and safeguards, while the approach of Chochmah allows for the nullification of vows.

The difference between these two approaches can be explained as follows: Binah refers to rational intellect, while Chochmah manifests itself in bittul.

Rational intellect is limited in scope, and can reach only so far. Beyond its given range, it is not an effective medium. For this reason, our Sages say:22 “You have no permission to question” with regard to matters that are above the reach of intellect. We cannot approach these levels with our reason, for there is the possibility of error. Our prophets warn23 against those who “are wise to do evil,” i.e., their wisdom is misdirected. Therefore, restraint — which limits the application of intellect — is necessary, and vows should be taken.

When operating from Chochmah, by contrast, there is no suspicion that an error will occur. For Chochmah is characterized by bittul, selflessness.

This level of bittul is experienced in the Shemoneh Esreh prayer,24 when a person stands before G‑d “like a servant before his Master,”25 without any thought of himself. Indeed, a servant is considered no more than an extension of his master. For this reason, “Whatever is acquired by a servant is acquired by his master.”26

Moreover, the bittul which characterizes Chochmah empowers one’s understanding, directing it in the proper path.27 As mentioned previously, a wise man (chocham) has the power to absolve a vow, lending strength to a person who otherwise would require restraint. In a similar way, the bittul of Chochmah (described with the analogy of both a father and a husband) empowers the functioning of Binah (described with the analogies of a maiden and a wife).28


Who May Taste the Fruits of the World?

The need for restraint and vows arises not only because indulgence in permitted things may lead to transgression, but because the indulgence itself is undesirable. As a person becomes engrossed in worldly matters, he begins to consider the world important, and can forget that “there is nothing else aside from Him.”29

The influence of Chochmah which allows for the absolution of vows sidesteps this difficulty. For the bittul of Chochmah not only lifts a person beyond the possibility of transgression, it endows him with a different perspective regarding the physical entities with which he is involved, enabling him to appreciate the G‑dliness they contain.30

To explain: As mentioned previously,31 Chochmah and Binah are described by the analogy of a father and a mother. For Binah is considered the “mother,” i.e., a closer source of our emotional attributes.

The supernal emotional attributes are the source for the creation of the world. As such, the connection between our world and Binah is not distant, and Binah grants the entities in this world a certain measure of importance.

Chochmah, by contrast, is described as the father of the emotions — i.e., it is further removed from them, and from the world which comes into being through them. As such, the world is of no consequence to this level. On the contrary, Chochmah is permeated by the awareness that: “He alone exists; there is no other.”32

Since Binah grants the entities in this world a certain measure of importance, restraint becomes necessary. For involvement in worldly concerns might create a separation between a person and G‑dliness. This is not true with regard to Chochmah. Since the world is of no consequence for those who function at this level, it becomes possible for them to be involved with worldly concerns without fear of becoming separated from G‑d.33


Comfort and Mercy

In several years — as is the case this year — the Shabbos on which the passage concerning vows is read is the Shabbos on which the month of Av is blessed.34

The above concepts provide us with a unique insight into the nature of the month. To explain: Av is the name by which the month is referred to in the Targum.35 Nevertheless, it is Jewish custom — and “Jewish custom is considered as the Torah itself”36 — to bless the month with the name Menachem Av. (Menachem means “the comforter.”)

Moreover, this is not merely a custom; the phrase Menachem Av is acceptable as a means of dating legal documents and bills of divorce. Furthermore, even if one writes the word Menachem alone, the document is acceptable, for “it is well known that the month of Av is referred to as Menachem.37

The difference between these terms is obvious. The month of Av is connected with unfavorable events, and thus: “When Av enters, we minimize our joy.”38 Therefore the word menachem is added as a prayer that G‑d provide comfort for the negative influences associated with the month.

The name Av also has a positive connotation, meaning “father.” Indeed, it refers to a deeper dimension of consolation than does the word menachem. Thus our Sages comment:39

It is the nature of a father to show mercy, as it written:40 “As a father has mercy on his children.” And it is the nature of a mother to comfort, as it is written:41 “As a man who will be comforted by his mother.” G‑d promises: “I will be like both a father and a mother.”

From this, we see that comfort is connected with Binah (the mother), while the influence of Chochmah (the father) is even higher. Thus we see that there are three levels: the negative dimensions of Av, the comfort stemming from Binah, and the positive influence of Chochmah.


Where Tears Have No Place

The difference between comfort and mercy can be explained as follows: Comfort involves the recognition of a loss. Indeed, even after a person has been comforted, he still feels the loss.42 He may understand that there is reason for him to feel consoled, and yet the sensation of loss remains; he has merely learned to accept the negative factors with joy.43

For this reason, one should no longer offer comfort to mourners after the period of mourning passes.44 Since the time of immediate pain has ended, one should not remind people of it, and thus reawaken negative emotions.

For similar reasons, after the resurrection, the concept of consolation will no longer apply, for then “G‑d will wipe away tears from every face.”45

Mercy, by contrast, fills the lack a person feels, wiping away pain entirely. For this reason, the resurrection will come about through the attribute of mercy, as we say in our prayers: “He resurrects the dead with great mercy.”46 For the attribute of mercy does not allow for even the concept of death or descent.

This echoes the thoughts explained previously: that comfort stems from Binah (the supernal mother), and mercy from Chochmah (the supernal father). From the perspective of Binah, the world is a significant entity. Therefore even when a person appreciates the need to accept suffering with joy, the suffering remains suffering.

From the perspective of Chochmah (utter bittul), however, worldly existence is insignificant. Therefore worldly privations are not regarded as suffering.47

To cite an example: Reb Zusya of Anapoli was poverty stricken, and suffered many types of privations. The Maggid of Mezeritch once sent a student to him to learn how to accept suffering with joy. When the student told Reb Zusya the purpose of his visit, Reb Zusya replied that he did not understand what the Maggid had in mind. “I have never experienced any suffering,” Reb Zusya exclaimed.

The bittul of Reb Zusya was so great that he did not feel that he suffered even when confronted by strokes of fate which the Torah considers privation. (For if these were not considered privations, the Maggid of Mezeritch would have had no reason to send his student to Reb Zusya. Moreover, the Maggid surely knew Reb Zusya’s spiritual level and how he would respond.)

This is what G‑d meant by saying: “I will be like both a father and a mother.” He will grant Jews not only the comfort of Binah, but also the mercy that stems from Chochmah.


Not Only Gold, but Silver

A question arises: Since in the Era of the Redemption the quality of mercy will be revealed, and this will compensate for all deficiencies, what need will there be for the aspect of comfort, which is connected with a lack and the pain it causes? For what will we be consoled?

These questions can be resolved as follows: The intent behind creation is G‑d’s desire for a dwelling in our material realm. This implies that the entities of our material world, as they exist within their own framework of reference, will become a dwelling for Him.

Mercy does not consider the limitations of our world. Thus it could nullify this framework of existence. Since the Divine intent is that this framework continue to exist, comfort remains necessary. For comfort recognizes the existence of our world, and operates within that framework.48

This is the intent of G‑d’s promise: “I will be like a father and a mother;” He will reveal both the qualities of a father, i.e., the transcendence of Chochmah, and that of a mother, i.e., the comfort of Binah, which will not nullify the world, but will instead enable the revelation of Chochmah to be internalized.


Above the World, Within the World

On this basis, we can also appreciate the meaning of Menachem Av — first menachem, the comforter, and then Av, the father. Our Divine service follows a pattern of ascendancy. Therefore the first stage is comfort, associated with Binah. For the month as it exists within its natural pattern has negative connotations. As mentioned previously, we are instructed: “When Av enters, we minimize our joy.”

Through their Divine service, however, Jews have the potential to draw down comfort during this month, just as they have the potential to draw down holiness by taking a vow.

Afterwards, a higher level is reached, the level of Av, associated with Chochmah. This enables one to absolve vows. Moreover, since the influence of Binah is already present, the influence of Chochmah does not lead to the nullification of the world.

The month is thus a fusion of Chochmah and Binah. This enables the light which transcends the spiritual cosmos to be drawn down and internalized within our world.


(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Parshas Matos-Masei, 5722)