I saw a birthday card in a store recently that said, “Do More Of What Makes You Happy” and the quote was attributed to Carmel McConnell. I thought about the philosophy those words bespeak, and how antithetical it seems to be to the biblical notion of vows and oaths, and especially the vow of the nazirite.
Vows and oaths are tricky things. Before written documents were the standard mode of conducting business and making contracts, and long before the materials needed to produce written documents were ubiquitous, people relied on vows and oaths to formally express and confirm their commitments. Parshat Mattot, which we read this week together with Parshat Mas’ei, begins by impressing upon us the importance of fulfilling an oath.
אִישׁ כִּי-יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַיהוָה, אוֹ-הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל-נַפְשׁוֹ--לֹא יַחֵל, דְּבָרוֹ: כְּכָל-הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו, יַעֲשֶׂה.
If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips. (Numbers 30:3)
Torah continues with a discussion of the vows made by women. We ought not be surprised that the vows of women are more complex, given that they generally lived under the authority of a father or a husband. Torah (Numbers 30:4-16) explains that if a women makes a vow or oath prior to marriage, her husband can annul it on the day he learns of it; if he raises no objection, the vow stands. And finally, the vow of a widow or divorcee is binding upon her. The Torah’s care in delineating the various circumstances under which a vow is uttered, and a man’s brief 24-hour window to annul the vow of a woman under his jurisdiction confirms the seriousness of vows.
Vows and oaths are very different from written contracts in a significant way. The latter require time and effort, thought and editing, sometimes negotiation and conversation, to produce. Vows and oaths are verbal declarations, and as such they can be made spontaneously and without appropriate thought and consideration. Consider how often you have heard an outburst that began, “I swear that…” Emotions weigh in far more quickly than reason and thereby have the advantage of hijacking our brains and determining our responses—that is the biological naturethe human brain. It is well-documented by neuroscientists and we’ve all experienced it many times. Bottom line: people are prone to making rash statements in the heat of the moment; if an outburst is phrased as an oath or a vow, with witnesses to attest to its utterance, trouble can ensue. For this reason, the Rabbis look askance at vows and discouraged people from making them. Talmud devotes an entire tractate—Nedarim—to vows, discussing at length whether, under what conditions, and how a person could be absolved of their vow. And they also register this strongly negative view of oath-making. Raba relates that the Sages in Eretz Yisrael considered it a sin to make a vow, even if the maker fulfilled it.
א"ל רבא לרב נחמן חזי מר האי מרבנן דאתא ממערבא ואמר איזדקיקו ליה רבנן לבריה דרב הונא בר אבין ושרו ליה נדריה ואמרו ליה זיל ובעי רחמי על נפשך דחטאת דתני רב דימי אחוה דרב ספרא כל הנודר אע"פ שהוא מקיימו נקרא חוטא אמר רב זביד מאי קרא (דברים כג) וכי תחדל לנדור לא יהיה בך חטא הא לא חדלת איכא חטא
Raba said to R. Nachman: “Behold, Master, a scholar who came from the West [Eretz Yisrael] and related that the Rabbis gave a hearing to the son of R. Huna b. Avin and absolved him of his vow, and then said to him, 'Go and pray for mercy, because you have sinned.’ For R. Dimi, the brother of R. Safra, learned: He who makes a vow, even though he fulfills it, is nonetheless a sinner.' R. Zevid said: What verse [teaches this]? — [When you make a vow to Adonai your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for Adonai your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt] but you will incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing (Deuteronomy 23:22-23); hence, if you have not made a vow, there is sin. (BT Nedarim 77b)
The vow that seems to have concerned the Rabbis most was that of the nazirite, which is discussed in Numbers chapter 6. A nazir (nazirite) was one who vowed to abstain from grapes and anything made from grapes (including wine), cutting his/her hair, and physical contact with a corpse for some period of time. It appears to be a way that someone could take on even more obligations than Torah provides in order to be “holy to the Lord” (Leviticus 21:6; Numbers 6:8) in a manner that is similar to the kohanim (priests). Given that it is entirely voluntary, however, it is more akin to asceticism.
The Rabbis wrestled with the idea of asceticism. The Talmud is filled with accounts of sages who imposed long fasts upon themselves. Rav Sheshet, we are told, would pray: "Lord of the Universe, You know that while the Temple stood, when a person sinned he brought a sacrifice and [the priests] offered only the fat and the blood [from the sacrificial animal], and atonement was thereby made for him. Now I have sat and fasted, and my fat and blood have been diminished. May it be Your will that this diminution of my fat and blood be as though I had offered a sacrifice on Your altar, and be gracious to me.” (BT Berakhot 17a) Nonetheless, the Rabbis took a dim view of asceticism and discouraged it as a religious practice. The Jerusalem Talmud reports that Rav taught: A person will have to give an account on the Day of Judgment of every pleasurable thing he was permitted to enjoy but did not. (JT Kiddushin 4:12, 66d)
The Rabbis were not alone in their disdain and disapproval of the Nazarite vows. We find another and fascinating voice in the writings of the hasidic teacher, Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl (1730-1797), also know as the Chernobler Rebbe, in his book Me’or Eynayim. Concerning the stipulations in Parshat Mattot surrounding vows, he directs us to first consider the vows of the nazirite. He recounts a discussion in the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ta’anit 11a):
On the verse, the priest will offer him atonement for his sin (Numbers 6:11), they [the Amora’im of the Talmud] asked: What sin has he committed? They replied: That of causing himself pain by abstaining from wine.
The Chernobler goes on to explain why the Rabbis equated abstention from enjoying wine with sin.
The world and everything within it, both great and small, was created by the word of God. By the word of God were the heavens made, and all their hosts [were created] by the breath of [God’s] mouth (Psalm 33:6). That word also sustains them and gives them life. You enliven them all (Nehemiah 9:6). Were it not for the life-force within each thing it would vanish from existence. But [people] are in a broken state in this lowly world, having come about through the sin of Adam and the generations that followed. Sparks of fallen souls became encased in things of this world, including food and drink. There is nothing in this world that does not have a holy spark within it, proceeding from the world of the blessed Holy One, making it alive.
The Chernobler Rebbe tells us that the life-force that animates each of us is a spark of the divine. But since the time that the primordial people left the Garden of Eden, humanity has existed in a broken, lowered state, pre-occupied with the material components of life (as opposed to the spiritual aspects of life). He specifically identifies food and drink and will elaborate on them shortly. He next appears to draw a line between the “material” side of life (food and drink) and the “spiritual” side (the divine spark within). But the dichotomy between “material” and “spiritual” that we have come to expect from classic Western thought and might have expected to find here, as well, does not materialize; quite to the contrary!
That divine spark is the taste within the thing—that which makes it sweet to the palate.
The pleasure we derive from the material world is not set against the spiritual qualities of life, but rather is the fulfillment of the spiritual quality inherent in all creation. The Chernobler now brings us a remarkable proof text: טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ, כִּי-טוֹב יְהוָה Taste and see how good Adonai is (Psalm 34:9). In the context of Psalm 34, טַעֲמוּ (lit. “taste”) is used metaphorically to mean “consider.” But for the Chernobler Rebbe, the taste and enjoyment of the things of this world is to be taken seriously as an experience of God, a spark of the divine. Explaining next that the food we consume is composed of both nourishing elements and waste, he tells us:
After a person partakes of food, the sustenance remains within while the waste, which does not give life, is expelled. [The waste] is worthless and negative, since the main purpose of food is that the person be sustained and given strength. That derives from the holy spark, the good taste one enjoys in that food or drink. Therefore, when you eat something, the spark within it [the nourishing part of the food] is joined to your own life-energy [to provide you sustenance], and you become nourished by it.
This is a remarkably earthy explanation of eating and drink as biological processes, and at the same time a deeply religious account of how our bodies function on the spiritual plane. The result of understanding all this, and living through this understanding, is an integration of the “material” and “spiritual”—the division evaporates.
When you have complete faith that this spiritual sustenance is indeed God’s presence hidden within that thing, you will turn your mind and heart entirely inward. Linking both those aspects of yourself to the sustenance coming from that spark, you will join them all to the Root of all, the One from whom all life flows. Then you bring that broken, exiled spark before God, causing great delight. The whole purpose of our religious life is to bring those holy sparks out from under the “shells,” those broken places, into the realm of the holy. Thus is holiness raised from its broken state.
When we come to understand that God is not “up in heaven” or “out beyond this world” but rather inherent in all creation—including the food and drink we consume without much thought—then we will reconnect the broken parts of ourselves (the dichotomy between the material and the spiritual) and thereby reconnect with “the One from whom all life flows.” This will end our personal exile. This is redemption—the purpose of life.
Therefore everyone who serves God needs to look toward the inner nature of things. Then all our deeds, including eating and drinking, are being done for the sake of heaven. Holy sparks are thus redeemed from their broken state, brought forth from exile or captivity, led into sublime holiness…
In case you are wondering if we have wandered far afield from the topic of vows, the answer is: No. When a person makes a vow to refrain from the aspects of life that bring us into contact with the One, the Root life-force of the universe—such as foreswearing wine or any other sort of pleasure—we cut ourselves off from the spark within them which is no different from cutting ourselves off from an access road to God and holiness.
I’m not sure that the Chernobler would have endorsed the birthday card greeting, “Do More Of What Makes You Happy.” Perhaps he would have rephrased it: “Find Happiness and Holiness in All That You Do.” And, indeed, I have come to learn that Carmel McConnell of London lives by that philosophy. McConnell set out in 2000 to conduct research for her book Change Activist; she explored whether society is has improved in terms of material wealth and justice. What she discovered was that thousands of school children arrive at school each day hungry because their parents cannot afford to provide breakfast for them. As a result, it is difficult for them to learn, which in turn diminishes their chances of rising out of poverty. McConnell immediately set out to deliver breakfasts to schools. She even mortgaged her home to get the project off the ground. Magic Breakfast now delivers breakfasts consisting of cereal, porridge, bagels, fruit, and juice to 16,000 children in 400 schools every morning. McConnell understands the connection between food and drink, the divine spark, pleasure and happiness.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman