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Wisdom and Wonder

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And Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of Israel, saying: This is the thing that G-d has commanded: A person who shall vow a vow to G-d, or swear an oath, to bind his soul with a bond—he shall not profane his words. He shall do according to all that proceeds from his mouth

Numbers 30:2-3

The laws of the Torah are more than a list of do’s and don’ts. They are G-d’s “blueprint for creation,” describing and defining the reality we inhabit.

The laws of Shabbat, for example, are not simply a series of instructions as to what we should or should not do on the seventh day of the week; they also define this day as a holy day—a time-period whose very essence and substance is saturated with a heightened degree of divine presence.[1] When the Torah commands us to put on tefillin, it is not just instructing us to perform a certain action; it is also establishing that a particular physical object (in this case, an assemblage of leather boxes and straps and parchment scrolls), when formed and used in accordance with the divine will, becomes a holy object—an object in which the divine reality is more pronounced than in other, ordinary objects.

But it is not just the Torah that possesses this authority. We, too, have the ability to define, with our words and actions, the very nature of our environment. The laws of nedarim (“vows”) grant this authority to ordinary, mortal man. These laws, commanded by G-d to Moses, dictate that a person’s words have the power not only to obligate himself to perform certain actions (as when a person enters into a business contract) or to forbid certain actions to himself (such as when he takes a vow not to drink wine)—but they also have the power to imbue the avowed or disavowed object with sanctity. In the words of the Talmud, “Things bound by an oath possess an intrinsic holiness.”[2]

Thus the Torah uses the term peleh, “wonder,” in referring to the power of the vow.[3] That the mitzvot of the Torah should have the power to define reality is only natural: the Torah is, after all, the revealed wisdom and will of the Designer and Creator of reality. But that a human being should, simply by uttering a few words, determine the degree of G-d’s closeness to a part of His creation is indeed an amazing and wondrous thing.

Even more amazing is that the power of the vow exceeds the power of the mitzvah! According to Torah law, an act of mitzvah has full significance only when it is performed by a person who has attained the age of maturity (12 for a girl and 13 for a boy). Thus, if a twelve-year-old boy were to fashion a pair of tefillin, they would remain ordinary pieces of animal hide. On the other hand, the law states that the vow undertaken by a child who is only nearing the age of maturity (i.e., an eleven-year-old girl or a twelve-year-old boy) does sanctify the avowed object.[4]

A child below the age of maturity lacks the degree of intellectual awareness (daat) required by Torah law to lend significance and import to one’s action. This is consonant with the above definition of Torah as the “wisdom of G-d”: in the world of wisdom, a “mindless” deed is not a deed. But in the world of wonder, to which the concept of vows belongs, the state of the child’s mind is not a handicap. On the contrary, the child possesses the quality of wonder in an even greater measure than his or her more “mature” peers.

First of Firsts

“Two things,” says the Midrash, “preceded G-d’s creation of the world: Torah and Israel. Still, I do not know which preceded which. But when Torah states ‘Speak to the Children of Israel…,’ ‘Command the Children of Israel…’—I know that Israel preceded all.”[5]

In other words, since G-d created the world in order that the people of Israel might implement the divine plan for existence outlined in the Torah,[6] it follows that the concepts of “Israel” and “Torah” precede the concept of “world” in the Creator’s mind. But which is the more deeply rooted idea within the divine consciousness—Torah or Israel? Does Israel exist so that the Torah could be implemented, or does the Torah exist to serve the Jew in the fulfillment of his mission and the expression of his relationship with G-d? If the Torah describes itself as a communication to Israel, deduces the Midrash, this presumes that the concept of “Israel” is primary to that of “Torah.”

The law of vows is an expression of Israel’s precedence to the Torah. Torah might be the wisdom of G-d, but the Jew is the wonder of G-d, and thus imbued and empowered with a holiness that is not contingent upon the boundaries of reason.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Av 20 and 21, 5744 (August 18 and 19, 1984)[7]

Adapted from the teacings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1]. See The Subconscious of G-d, WIR, vol. IX, no. 41.

[2]. Talmud, Ketubot 59b; see Likkutei Torah, Mattot 82b and 83b ff.; Derech Mitzvotecha, Mitzvat Nedarim.

[3]. Leviticus 27:2; Numbers 6:2.

[4]. There are various opinions among the halachists as to the precise period of “near-maturity” (mufla hasamuch l’ish—another use of the termpeleh in relation to the vow). All agree, however, that there is a time period in which a person, though still below the age of maturity regarding the mitzvot, has the power of sanctification by vow (see Talmud, Niddah 45b; Rashi, ibid., 46a-b; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Vows 11:1; Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXVIII, pp. 191-198, and sources cited there).

Another “wondrous” quality of the vow is that it transcends the limitation of the Torah’s division of the universe into “pure” and “impure” elements.Tefillin that are fashioned from the hide of an impure (i.e., non-kosher) animal have no holiness whatsoever; but a person can consecrate an impure animal with a vow, by vowing not to derive benefit from it or by pledging to donate it to the Holy Temple (see Derech Mitzvotecha, ibid.)

[5]. Tana D’vei Eliyahu Rabbah, chapter 14.

[6]. See Rashi, Genesis 1:1.

[7]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXVIII, pp. 197-199.

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