The beginning of parshas Matos details the laws of vows. The first Midrash on the parsha teaches us that not just anybody is permitted to take a vow. The prerequisite traits that are needed before a person may take a vow are derived from a pasuk in Devarim, “אֶת-ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ תִּירַא אֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹד וּבוֹ תִדְבָּק וּבִשְׁמוֹ תִּשָׁבֵעַ/You shall fear God your Lord, serve Him and cling to Him.” The Midrash says that to take a vow one must be God-fearing like Avraham Avinu, Iyov and Yosef whom the Torah refers to as God-fearing. One must serve God through Torah and mitzvos to the exclusion of all else. Finally, one must cling to God.
Regarding the last required trait of clinging to God the Midrash asks, “How is it possible to cling to God?” The Torah calls God a consuming fire. Is it possible for a physical being to connect to a consuming fire? The Sfas Emes explains that the Midrash’s question is based on the premise that connecting to God involves distancing oneself from the physical, since God is far removed from the physical. The Midrash notes the difficulty with this direct approach to clinging to God. The Midrash answers that the only way a physical being can connect to God, is indirectly, through activity in this world. We connect to God in this world when our actions are done for His sake.
This explains how we can experience God in this world but why must a person’s every action be for the sake of Heaven in order to take vows? To answer this question we need to understand what a vow is. A vow is a verbal expression of a person’s desire to do a given action. The Torah gives such a declaration the status of a legal commitment. Chazal tell us that vows should be used as a tool to encourage us in the performance of mitzvos.
Avraham Avinu, Iyov and Yosef, the people the Torah explicitly refers to as God-fearing, were on a level at which awe of God permeated and motivated their every action. All their actions were done for His sake. As such, they essentially transformed every action into a mitzvah. Every one of their actions increased God’s glory in this world. Every mundane action was thus transformed into a mitzvah.
The Midrash is teaching us that when all a person’s activities are for the sake of Heaven, when a person’s desires and God’s will are totally aligned, he has transformed his actions into mitzvos. It is appropriate for this person to declare his desire, which mirrors God’s will, in the form of a vow. However, many people’s desires are not aligned with God’s will. Their actions are motivated by other factors such as personal desires. These actions are not mitzvos. It is thus not appropriate to declare such desires as vows. These people need first to work on performing their routine daily activities because they need to (e.g. we need to eat to live) rather than because they desire to. This is the first step in aligning our actions with God’s will.
Near the end of parshas Mas’ei the Torah teaches us the laws regarding a murderer. A person who intentionally commits murder is put to death. A person who kills unintentionally is exiled to one of the cities of refuge in
The prophet Yeshaya prophesied that there will come a time when God will take revenge against
The Chiddushei HaRim says that a murderer forfeits his right to space in this world. Regarding a murderer the pasuk at the end of this week’s parsha states, “... וְלָאָרֶץ לֹא-יְכֻפַּר לַדָּם אֲשֶׁר שֻׁפַּך-בָּהּ כִּי-אִם בְּדַם שֹׁפְכוֹ/…and the earth will not be wiped clean of the blood that was shed on it except with the blood of the one who shed it.” The Torah is teaching us that the murderer has no place on this earth. He must be executed.
God, in His kindness, granted the unintentional murderer space in cities of refuge. The name of one of those cities Betzer, hints at this concept. The root of the word Betzer means to fortify. Betzer represents the strength that God gives the unintentional murderer. He is permitted to live.
The Torah is a haven for sinners as well. The idea is the same. A person who has sinned and realizes that he has forfeited his right to space in this world can be saved by finding refuge in learning Torah. The Torah itself functions as a city of refuge.
The key is that the sinner must understand that he has forfeited his space in the world. Only then does the city of refuge protect him. However, a person who thinks that he deserves space in this world even if he sins will not be saved by the city of refuge or by the Torah.
The Chiddushei HaRim explains that Batzrah, whose root also means to fortify, implies one who believes that he lives on the merit of his own strength. This was the mistake of
The Chiddushei HaRim is teaching us that we live at God’s pleasure. By sinning we forfeit the privilege. However, God gave us the ability to correct our mistakes and return to Him. The first fundamental step is this realization. God gives us strength and security in this world specifically when we realize that on our own we have no strength and security.