A teaching by Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, from Meor Einayim, Mattot.
Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying: This is the thing the God has commanded. If a man makes a vow to God or makes an oath to prohibit himself something, he shall not violate his word; he shall do whatever came out of his mouth. Numbers 30:2-3
Let’s start with a teaching of the sages. The Torah says that a nazir must bring an offering to be purified of his sin — what sin? For sinning against himself by prohibiting himself wine. (1) How are we to understand this?
It is known that all the world and everything in it “were made by the word of God, and by the breath of His mouth all their host,” for God’s word brings into being everything in existence, from small to great, and gives life to everything, as it is written, “You give life to them all” (2)… So we find there is nothing in this world that does not have a holy spark of God within it. Even our food and drink has divinity within it, and indeed this is the source of the food’s sustenance and flavor, as it is written, “Taste and see that God is good” — that is, whatever you taste and see that is good, it is God (3).
So when you eat, the divinity within the food is joined to the divinity within you, and it gives you strength. When you have pure faith that the goodness within is actually part of God, and you are aware of the spirituality in the act of eating, and so cleave to God in that act, then you bind the divinity within the food to its root in God, the source of all, releasing it from its fractured and exiled state in the material world and returning it to its source, restoring unity to the world. This brings great joy to God, for the essence of all our service is returning the fallen divine sparks back to their origin in God.
So if you truly want to serve God, then you must strive to do so at all times, even while doing such mundane things as eating and drinking. How do you do this? By being aware of the spiritual potential in the act, and by acknowledging God as King in the blessings before and after the meal, and by using the strength from the food to serve God in action and speech, thus entering into the divine words that are within all creation. The food that you eat, the way that you do business, the way that you earn your living — each of these things is a chance reserved just for you to serve God and so bring Him delight. In each of your daily needs the holy sparks wait to be lifted up and returned to their source. Each spark can only be lifted by the soul for whom it has been designated, the soul which shares its root in God, for truly that spark is part of your own soul. This is what Rabbi Ben Azzai meant when he told the incense maker, “In your place shall they seat you, and from your own portion shall they provide you. A person cannot encroach upon what is set aside for his fellow” (4). This is why one of us must go here and another go there, for God leads us where we need to go, knowing that the sparks of our own soul await us in that place. We may think we are going there for work or to eat or to fulfill some desire, but in reality those reasons are disguises, created by God so that we should go where we need to go to do our holy work.
So you must pay attention to the true work that awaits you in every place and moment, as in the verse, “In all your ways know God” (5). Then you will know how the Creator gives you life, truly from God’s own self. This is the meaning of “for man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (6)… However, as the Baal Shem Tov teaches, even if you are not aware of what you are doing and simply eat, but then use the energy from the food to serve God, then you still return the sparks to their source; but just as you always strive for higher and holier service in your prayer and Torah study, so should you strive in your every act, such as eating and drinking. For really it is all service — praying, studying, eating, drinking, doing business, earning a living…
This is why the sages say the nazir has sinned against his own soul, because by refraining from drinking wine in holiness, he has abandoned the divine soul within the wine to its current state as not-holy, and abstained from raising it higher and binding it to his own soul and then to God.
Now we can also understand our verse, “If a man makes a vow to God to prohibit himself something…” The verse actually reads, “to prohibit his soul something,” for in his abstinence he refrains from binding the divinity in the material world to its root in God, and there is no one else who can do this for him, for every soul has its own portion of divinity scattered around this world, and only he can bind his own portion to his soul and to God. Thus the verse continues lo yachel devaro, “he shall not violate his word” — but more literally, “he shall not leave His word chol, not-holy,” for it is a spark of divinity that “came out of His mouth,” and so he must redeem that word and every word of the Creator that now lies garbed in materiality (7). This is why our sages said that making a vow is like building an idolatrous altar, and fulfilling that vow is like offering a sacrifice on that altar (8), for raising the sparks of divinity through eating is like bringing an offering, since it returns the divinity to its source in God; thus the sages compare our dining tables to the altar in the Temple, for there is no greater offering than this joining of divinity to divinity in the simple act of eating (9).
1) Taanit 11a on Numbers 6:11. The nazir, or nazirite, is someone who willingly forbids himself certain things as a form of spiritual elevation. One of the things forbidden to him is contact with the dead, so if he is in the presence of a corpse he has to bring a sin-offering “for his sin regarding the soul.” “The soul” in context seems to mean the corpse, but the rabbis read it as “his own soul.” 2) Psalms 33:6, Nehemia 9:6 3) Psalms 34:8 4) Yoma 38a-b; Ben Azzai, a famous sage and mystic of the second century. He said these words upon hearing a story about a member of the family that used to prepare the secret ingredient in the incense offered in the Temple, encouraging him not to lose hope, because since this job had been reserved specifically for his family, no one else could take their place. The parallel between the incense offered on the altar and the holy sparks we each raise up in our own divine service is the unspoken connection between this story and our teaching. 5) Proverbs 3:6 6) Deuteronomy 8:3 7) As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook said, “There is no such thing as unholy; there is only holy and not-yet-holy.” Those two categories are kadosh, holy, and chol, not-holy. Kadosh can be turned into a verb, yekadesh, and here the Meor Einayim has turned chol into a verb, reading lo yachel as “he shall not make it chol, not-holy.” 8) Nedarim 22a; the comparison is made stronger by the fact that the word for offering is korban, which means “drawing close,” apropos of drawing the divine sparks close to one’s soul and then to their heavenly source 9) Berachot 55a says: “It is written in Ezekiel 41:22, The Altar was of wood, three cubits tall, and then the verse continues, He said to me, ‘This is the Table that is before God.’ The verse began by speaking of the Altar but ended by speaking of the Table! And both Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Elazar said that this is the meaning: While the Temple was standing, the Altar would atone for Israel, but now that the Temple has been destroyed, a person’s table atones for him.”