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 TORAH FOR THE TIMES 
  

 
Torah Reading: Matot-Massei, Numbers 30:2 - 36:13
Haftora: Jeremiah 2:4-28, 4:1-2
   
 
Shabbat Candle Lighting: 8:09 PM
Shabbat Ends: 9:16 PM
 
B”H
 
MATOT-MASSEI
TURNING SHADOWS INTO LIGHT 
 
 
Another Puzzling Midrash 
The opening verses of this week’s double parsha, Matos and Masei, discuss the laws of vows and oaths: “When a person makes a vow to G‑d or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he may not violate his word; he must act in accordance with whatever he uttered.” 
In a genre of Midrashic work entitled Midrash Peliah-Puzzling Midrash (a collection of enigmatic statements, almost like riddles, intended to get us to probe more deeply into the
subject), there is a cryptic comment concerning vows. 
Speaking of the opening phrase of this week’s parsha, “When a person makes a vow to G‑d” the Midrash comments: “This is [the meaning of] what the scripture says, ‘[For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing,] because our days upon earth are a shadow.’ Job (8:9)” 
What is the connection between our lives resembling a fleeting shadow and a person making a vow to G‑d? 
Life is a Shadow 
One possible explanation is that when we reflect on our lives we conclude that they lack substance. Time flies, as the expression goes, and before we know it, most of what we have done loses its relevancy. Many individuals have reflected on their lives and
decided that there was very little of real, authentic and worth
living for merit in their past and what little there was of worth, is now gone. This reflection has brought many a person to feelings of Teshuvah (repentance or return) as a way of salvaging their lives. 
In truth, one does not have to wait until life is about over to
appreciate its emptiness and ephemeral nature.  Even when we are living it, we often recognize that most of what we do in life is not real. Our life’s experiences can feel like mere shadows of reality. 
The Exceptions 
There are notable exceptions to this rule, which can make life worthwhile. These are the things we do that are connected to G‑d, the essence of substance and reality. Our connection to G‑d is made through the observance of the Mitzvos-commandments, which represent G‑d’s will. The uniqueness of G‑d’s will is that it is at one with G‑d. Just like G‑d is not here for something else, so too His will is not simply geared to satisfy some other need, as is so often the case with human will. A person wants to work
because it will provide him with money. A person wants money so he can purchase food and pay his rent. A person desires to eat and have a place to live so he can be healthy and comfortable, so he can go to work and make money… 
Life is a vacuous cycle that gets us nowhere unless we connect it with G‑d’s will because, when G‑d, by contrast, expresses His desire for us to do a Mitzvah, that is the objective. There need not be another objective because G‑d and His will are one, and just as He does not exist for something else, so too His will does not have to serve some other need. 
Put in simple terms, the only time we deal directly with substantive life experiences is when we connect our actions to G‑d through the performance of a Mitzvah. For example, when a Jewish man puts on Tefillin, that experience is G‑dly; it is real and endures forever. When a Jewish woman lights Shabbos candles, that light is G‑dly light, substantive, and enduring. 
The same can be said for the negative commandments. When we resist the temptation to engage in forbidden thought, speech or action, then our thought, speech and action are not sullied, which renders these functions G‑dly and therefore substantive and enduring. 
What About the Rest of the Day? 
But, what about the rest of the day, when we are engaged in “neutral” behavior? When we are not actually performing a Mitzvah how do we bring meaning and substance into our lives?  And since most of our day and night is filled with neutral activities such as work, eating and sleeping, it would suggest that an
enormous portion of our lives is devoid of real meaning and
substance. 
The standard answer to this is that when we behave with the
intention of serving G‑d then everything we do becomes a vehicle for the Divine and elevates the mundane into the G‑dly sphere. This is what our Sages meant with the expression, “All your deeds shall be for the sake of heaven.” 
However, there are some people would like to have a more direct connection with G‑d even when engaged in mundane activities. They are not content with doing things for an eventual
G‑dly objective.  They want to instill their everyday lives with Divine energy even when engaged in non-spiritual matters. In their minds, doing neutral things is like a shadow relative to the blazing light released in the performance of a Mitzvah. So how do you turn a non-Mitzvah into a Mitzvah? 
To remedy this situation one makes a vow to G‑d to engage or to not engage in a certain activity. Now, he or she is duty-bound by the Torah’s commandment to respect that vow. Mundane activity has been transformed into a G‑dly act. Remaining faithful to one’s vow or oath renders that activity (or the inactivity in case the vow was restrictive) an intrinsic Mitzvah act, which brings substance to areas of one’s life which once were outside the pale of the Mitzvah. 
This then is the deeper meaning of the cryptic reference to our days on earth as shadows. Without the vows one makes to G‑d, most of our activities are reduced to shadows of reality and our lives, in terms of the aggregate of the activities we engage in, are reduced to a mere ephemeral shadow. 
However there are conflicting opinions about the propriety of making vows. One Talmudic source discourages vows that
impose additional prohibitions on a person that the Torah did not prohibit. Other sources seem to advocate it, as in Ethics of the Fathers: Vows are a fence for abstention. 
The difference lies in the motive for the vow. If the vow is
intended to imbue the shadowy nature of our existence with
meaning and substance then it is desirable. If, on the other hand, the objective of the vow is self-affliction, the Talmud advises against it. 
Redemption: Above the Sun 
The Zohar cites the foregoing verse from Job which compares our days to shadows as referring to the end of exile and the beginning of the Redemption. According to the Zohar (following the
interpretation of the commentary Ziv HaZohar), the first part of the verse “For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing” refers to the last millennium of Galus-exile, while the concluding words, “our days upon earth are a shadow,” refers to the last quarter of the sixth millennium (from the year 5750 onward) when the late afternoon sun casts the longest shadows. 
What is the relationship of shadows at the onset of the final
Redemption with the idea that vows transform our shadows into reality? 
The entire concept of making a vow to introduce holiness into our mundane activities is necessitated by the Galus perception of a dichotomy between the holy things we do, such as performance of a mitzvah, and everything else that is neutral. 
This distinction, however, is not, in and of itself, real. In truth, from G‑d’s perspective, the world of shadows is no less
G‑dly than the world of light. The Galus conditions which keep us from rising above the sun, metaphorically speaking, render everything in this world, other than a Mitzvah, a “Vanity of vanities,” as King Solomon stated in Ecclesiastes. When we live “under the sun,” the expression used by Solomon to describe our quotidian existence, there is a distinction between the
sunlight and the shadow it casts. 
However, when one rises above the sun and sees the world from G‑d’s vantage point, one sees the shadow as no less significant than the sun that creates it. 
In the Messianic Age we will see G‑dliness in everything that we do. Even when we engage in the most physical of behaviors it will be a form of serving G‑d. This is, in fact, what King
Solomon meant when he said in Proverbs, “Know Him in all your ways.” However, true knowledge eludes us in of
exile.  Recall the passage cited above from Job: “For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing.” Because we are from
yesterday, meaning the period of exile, we know nothing. Our ability to truly know G‑d and see His presence in everything that we do is limited, hence we resort to vows as a way of introducing
holiness into our ordinary activities.  
However, in the Messianic Age, the prophet declares, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the water
covers the sea.” We will gain this upper (“above the sun”) level knowledge and therefore be capable of seeing the Divine in everything. We will no longer need vows to turn our shadows into light.