The following is based in part on concepts from the Sfas Emes and Rav Moshe Wolfson. Feel free to print this out and read it over Shabbos, just please not during Tefilos!
In the beginning of this week’s Parsha we are introduced to the concept of Nedarim and Shvuos, oaths and vows. To make a vow, a person invokes God’s Name in a pledge and commits himself to do an action, or, conversely, to refrain from something. For example, “I need to be kinder. Therefore I swear, B’Sheim Hashem, to water my neighbor’s plants.” Or on the side of refrain, “I’m looking out for my health, and in God’s name I pledge not to consume any more energy drinks.”
Something astonishing happens when this pledge is made. Because the Torah now requires of me to uphold that vow, when I am Mekayem, when I fulfill my promise I carry out a Mitzvah Deoraisa – a Torah commandment! Why is this amazing? It’s miraculous because I created a new Mitzvah that’s all my own! This seems striking at first glance, so let’s explain.
Because of my Shvu’a to water it, my neighbor’s plant becomes a Cheftzah Shel Mitzvah – a Mitzvah object. Like we said, the Torah now requires of me to keep that oath. Therefore, in regards to me, those flowers are intrinsically holy. They are the object upon which I carry out the Mitzvah to uphold my vow. With the power of the Torah, I have infused them with Ratzon Hashem – the will of the Creator. They are now part of the framework of the Torah. For me, these plants are now Mitvah #614. Simultaneously (and this is the perplexing part) what is a Cheftzah Shel Mitzvah to me is just an ordinary potted plant to everyone else. There is some level of subjective holiness to them.
What emerges is that through the power of Nedrarim and Shvuos I can create a unique Mitzvah that applies just to me. But we need to understand how the Shvu’a makes this happen. What ocurs when I pledge an oath that all of a sudden a new Mitzvah is brought into the world?
A journey into another teaching of Chazal will shed more light on our subject…
The Pasuk in Koheles tells us, “V’HaNefesh Lo Timaleh” – No matter how many physical pleasures the body encounters and experiences; the soul will never be satisfied with such things. Why is this so? Why can’t I simply calm down my spiritual aspirations via physical avenues. For this, our sages provided us with a parable.
A young and excited mountain dweller attempted to capture the heart of the princess. After much persuasion the mature, sophisticated maiden decided to spend the day with the rural man. He attempted to win her over with a home cooked meal, a trip to the rodeo and all of the rugged-style delights that he was used to. But as nice as it all was the princess just wasn’t satisfied. It was a nice attempt, but simply put she was too refined for his coarse lifestyle.
This is the meaning of “V’HaNefesh Lo Timaleh”. The spiritual essence present within us is an outgrowth of Godliness that is rooted in the loftiest echelons of the metaphysical reality. Our body on the other hand, as we learned in Bereishis, is formed out of dirt. As hard as the body may try to entice the soul with earthly pleasures, it’ll never work – the Soul is a Princess. She has already been satisfied with the sublime joy of closeness to Hashem and nothing else will do.
The Gemara in Messeches Nidah describes what is perhaps the moment of this upmost satisfaction. There we are told that before the fetus leaves the mother, the spiritual consciousness of the unborn child lives in bliss. Chazal describe how the soul of the child is illuminated by a universal awareness where the whole world, with all of its details is seen as one unified energy. The unborn child is granted a perspective where Divine Providence is at the peak of recognition. And with this global meta-perspective the child learns the whole Torah with an Angel. This, in spiritual terms, is as good as it gets. It is at this ripe time that the Angel forces the child to take upon itself an oath. An oath to be a Tzadik - A Shvu’a to keep all of the Mitzvos.
Why do we need to pledge something that we don’t remember? The answer is that it’s not the pledge that is the importance; rather it is the spiritual reality that it affects which is the real focus of a Shvu’a.
We see Shvuos made several times in the Torah. Avraham Avinu made his servant Eliezer take upon himself a Shvu’a before setting out to find a wife for Yitzchak. Yaakov Avinu made Yosef HaTzadik swear to take his body to be buried in Eretz Yisrael. Why was such oaths necessary? What, Eliezer, a faithful servant and a Tzadik in his own right, wasn’t going to listen? Avraham was scared? Similarly, Yaakov didn’t believe that Yosef would obey? Why did they demand promises?
The answer comes from the makeup of the word Shvu’a. There are two main approaches to its meaning that we need to address.
The Chidushei HaRim explains that the word for an oath is deeply rooted in the word Sheva, meaning seven, which is spelled the same way. What is the importance of seven? Says the Maharal, the number seven is nature and man within it. How so? Seven days of the week, seven colors in the rainbow, seven notes in the musical scale. Seven creates a whole picture. At the same time the Kabalists speak of the seven Midos, root character traits that man embodies. Because of this duality, the Shvu’a thrusts the essence of the person into the makeup of reality.
Also, Shvu’a is profoundly connected to Save’a – satisfied (also spelled the same way). The Koach, the power of a Shvu’a totally fills a person. Because an oath is made in the Name of Hashem, when a person swears he directs the lifeforce that Hashem sustains the world with into the essence of his being. He becomes spiritually satisfied.
It is the meeting point of these two meanings that we can understand the full ramifications of the Shvu’a. The Shvu’a creates a tremendous alignment of forces. At the dramatic moment were there is a precise placement of man within the world (Sheva), he becomes ripe and ready to serve as the vessel that he needs to be for the incoming energy of Sheim Hashem that fills him (Sove’a).
The oath serves as the precise spiritual boost that he needs to become imbued with an exacting flood of fresh strength; perfect for whatever his new mission may be.
Yosef HaTzadik and Eliezer were made to take oaths not to ensure that they would remain faithful, rather it was in order to empower them to carry out their missions with levels of intensity and inspiration that they previously didn’t know that they could attain. The goal of the Shvu’a was to spin the cosmos in such a way that they would be able to carry out the task in a way that was until that time unimaginable.
So too we say V’HaNefesh Lo Timaleh because at that moment of surreal holiness in the womb, the soul accepts upon itself uniquely magnificent and transcendent concentrations of spiritual capability. Those precious moments that we described above serve as a very special convergence of Sheva and Sove’a. Once that happens, once the Shvu’a takes place, the soul is satisfied, it’s empowered, it feels whole, and therefore it is obvious that any baser animalistic pleasure simply won’t be able to compare.
With one more parable we can understand how this generates the anomalies of Cheftzah Shel Mitzvah.
There is Chinese folk music playing all around you right now. Why don’t you hear it? You don’t hear it because you don’t have the proper tool tuned into the proper frequency that can extract it from the air. But with a radio on the right station you would be able to enjoy the relaxing tones of the paixiao and the yangqin (yes, they are real) as you read this.
This is what Shvu’a does. Through the unique dynamic of the Shvu’a, he who takes the oath attains the exact Kochos to emit the perfect spiritual frequency that transforms a potted plant into a Cheftza Shel Mitzvah. For one person it’s holy, and for another person it’s a potted plant.
And it is the Shvu’a in the womb that makes all the difference in the world between Jew and gentile. Why is it that on Succos a Yid can grab a Lulav and it is holy, and yet Goy holds the exact same thing and for him it serves no particular purpose? Why is that when a Jew wears a combination of wool and linen it serves as a steel block on his soul, and yet when a non-Jew wears the same combination it’s totally fine? It's the same answer as the potted plant, just bigger.
The Shvu’a that we all take in the womb opens us up and tunes us in to the frequency called Ratzon Hashem. There’s a vibration pumping through the universe, there’s ‘Chinese folk music’ blasting everywhere – our souls can hear it and their souls can’t. The oath that each and everyone of us experiences puts us in a place totally incomparable to a soul that has not undergone such an experience. The significance of the oath that we can’t remember is the fact that because of it we stand on a plane above and beyond everything else. Every other Shvu’a taken over the course of history is merely a microcosm of that.
What I need to take out of all of this is that there is a wellspring of tailor-made Kochos inside of me, just waiting to be tapped into. An amazing spiritual calculation has resulted in my unique role in the universe. I can extract Kediusha from the world around me in a way that no one else who ever has does or will exist can. When we have this amazing realization we can begin to find and access those Kochos - and HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us a Bracha that we will – there is no doubt that we will live lives of Shleimus and Simcha, moving closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!