Vows are the safety fence for abstinence

Ethics of the Fathers, 3:13


Somewhere between the good deed and the moral wrong is the permissible indulgence. How is one to approach these (seemingly) neutral pleasures?

The Torah's view on the matter appears to be mixed. On the one hand, the Talmud interprets the injunction "Be holy" to mean: "Sanctify yourself also in regard to that which is permissible to you." On the other hand, it chides the nazir, who, in his quest for holiness, has forsworn wine: "Is what the Torah has forbidden not sufficient for you, that you must further deprive yourself?"

In the 30th chapter of Numbers, these two approaches to worldly pleasures are personified by two characters in the Torah's discussion of the laws of vow-taking. We read of a daughter who pledges to refrain from a particular food or pleasure, and of the father who annuls her vow. As is the case with all of Torah's laws, this scenario reflects a corresponding state of affairs within the "small world" that is the human being; and that the soul of man has a "daughter" who shuns the physical world and a "father" who annuls her vows of abstinence.

Everything in G‑d's world has been created towards a positive purpose. So, unless the Torah explicitly prohibits it, nothing is to be rejected or discounted. But man has his vulnerabilities. Instead of using the resources and opportunities of the physical world for a higher end, he may be overwhelmed and seduced by that which he comes to develop and redeem.

So if and when he realizes that he is in danger of succumbing to his basic instincts, he must take the necessary steps to curb them. He must erect "safety fences" of further restriction and disavowal, lest the surface glitter of the material world overshadow its inner potential.

Yet even as he vows to restrict his involvement with the physical, a higher authority within him is already preparing to annul his vows. This deeper and more transcendent self remains forever unsullied by its mundane environment. As man gains mastery and control over his life, he gradually repeals his self-imposed restrictions, so that he may utilize every one of G‑d's gifts in a positive and constructive manner.