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Home » Food, Matot

Matot: The Joys of Ice-Cream

Submitted by on July 20, 2011 – 6:31 pmNo Comment | 1,413 views

Can You Have Your Cake And Eat It Too?

When we see a religious leader living the good life, fancy cars, extravagant expense accounts and private jets, we are naturally skeptical about their piety. When we think of the devout we conjure up images of the impoverished and downtrodden whose faith, integrity and generosity of spirit flourish despite their hardships. We have a hard time equating luxury with true religious devotion.

Is it impossible to be wealthy and powerful as well as pious and devout? No of course not. It is possible, but so rare as to render it highly improbable. We just don’t believe it unless it is proven.

Think of yourself. Can you imagine yourself jet setting with the high and mighty, dining in world class establishments and being consulted by world leaders all without corrupting your selflessness and piety? Let’s not get carried away. Can you imagine yourself sitting before a succulent, mouth watering, roast on Shabbat and eating it purely for the sake of Shabbat and not at all for self enjoyment?

Now indeed there are exceptional people who carry off this level of devotion to perfection. There are truly humble leaders, who despite their power, wealth and prestige, remain true to their mission as servants of G-d and their people. The rest of us, the ordinary masses, are not only incapable of attaining such integrity, we can’t even imagine it.

This is why Jewish law permits the taking of a vow. When we feel incapable of enjoying a particular pleasure without succumbing to self indulgence, it is proper to vow to avoid that particular pleasure.

Suppose you had a particular weakness for ice cream and try as you might you could not overcome it, every time you see ice cream your mouth waters. Are you capable of eating it on Shabbat purely for the sake of the mitzvah? Could you eat it and tell yourself that if it were not Shabbat you would not have it?

So what is wrong with eating ice cream for its own sake? The problem is that everything that G-d created has a body and a soul. The body is its existence, what and who it is. The soul is its purpose, why it was made. Everything that G-d made, must in some way serve Him, otherwise, it makes no sense for the creator to have made it. When we consume a resource that G-d created for its own sake, we enjoy its body, but destroy its soul. Its soul is its ability to serve G-d and unless we use it for that purpose it is deprived of a soul.

How then can I recruit ice cream to the service of G-d? If ice cream, in my mouth, can never serve G-d because practically speaking it is always put to use in the service of my salivating glands how can my ice cream ever have a soul?

The answer, simply put, fair or not, is that it can’t. There is no way that I can honestly eat ice cream for G-d’s sake. Every time I take it in my mouth I violate the purpose for which it was created. Furthermore, I violate my own purpose of utilizing all physical phenomena for G-d, a charge I constantly fail.

At this point the only solution is to avoid ice cream altogether. If I can’t serve G-d with it, I should leave it for others who can.I should save myself and the ice cream the terrible ordeal of unrealized potential.

Annulment

Why then does the Torah permit annulment? A person who undertook a vow may have it annulled by a wise Torah Scholar. All that is necessary for annulment is to explain that one was not completely aware of the hardships the vow would cause. Once this has been established the scholar may annul the vow and permit that which the null had forbidden.

This makes little sense. If the vow was made to help a Jew avoid a pitfall in the service of G-d, why do we allow the Jew to annul the vow and expose a new crack in the relationship?

The answer is obvious. A request for annulment is our way of saying that we now feel confident in our ability to partake of that pleasure without corrupting our purpose and soul. It is a joyful occasion for both the applicant and the scholar. It is a testament of spiritual growth. When I was an ice-cream-holic I vowed to stay off it, now that I have progressed it is time for me to ask for an annulment. (1)

In other words, if I am now capable of recruiting the ice cream to the service of G-d, why should I forbid it to myself through a vow?

This And So

We can now explain a seeming redundancy in the Torah. When Moses presented the laws of vow annulment he spoke to the leaders of the tribes and said to them, “these are the words that G-d commanded.“ In a Torah that is exceedingly careful with every word, the introductory statement, these are the words that G-d commanded, is superfluous. Moses could have simply launched directly into the commandment without the preamble? (2)

The key to unraveling this mystery lies in the word, this. When Moses prophesied he usually used the word this, as in this is precisely what G-d said, whereas other prophets who used the term Ko, which means this is more or less what G-d said. Moses was clear on the specifics of his prophecy because he was holier than other prophets, which gave him the ability to read G-d’s wish directly. (3)

By prefacing the laws of vow annulment with the words, this is what G-d said, Moses implied that these laws celebrate a wonderful victory for G-d. Till now this man was on a rather low spiritual level and could thus not reconcile his vice and G-d. He has now reached a level so devout and pristine that he feels able to recruit ice cream to the service of G-d. He has been elevated to a higher level, he has gone from Koh to Zeh, from an unclear relationship with G-d to one that is intimate and direct. (4)

May we all learn to do this well.

Footnotes

  1. Though the reason we give the scholar
    is not about our escalating piety it must serve as the underlying basis
    for the annulment. Of course this assumes that the vow was made in the
    first place for the reasons outlined in the essay.  It is in fact
    inappropriate to make a vow for any other reason.
  2. NUmbedrs 30: 2.
  3. See Rashi ibid.
  4. This essay is based on Sefer Mamarim 5662 on this parshah.
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