Torah 57: Medicine, the Sage’s Wisdom and the Tikkun of Eating – part 5

Rav Shagar • 2008

Rav Nachman claims that a flaw in faith in the sages can be rectified through a vow. He likens the wonder of the vow to the wonder present in faith in the sages. The vow is a form of speech that belongs to the real, and therefore it transcends any objective/subjective fault lines: it creates a reality, and thereby rectifies the nihilism that is embedded in a flawed faith in the sages.

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The Vow and Faith in the Sages

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The way to raise up fallen faith is through the aspect of Yaakov—i.e., through a vow. A person should make some vow, and through the vow he restores his faith in the sages. For when he lacks faith in the sages, this is the aspect of the passing of the sages, the aspect of wonder, corresponding to (Isaiah 29:14), “I will continue to bewilder this people with bewilderment and wonder, and the wisdom of its wise men will fail.” Our Sages, of blessed memory, expounded this as referring to the passing of the sages (Eikhah Rabbah 1:37).

The rectification of this wonder—i.e., the passing of the sages—is the wonder of a vow, in the aspect of “if he wondrously expresses a vow” (Numbers 6:2). By means of the vow he ascends to the source in which the sages are rooted—i.e., the aspect of “wondrous wisdom”—and so he knows and recognizes the virtues of the sages. Through this he reverts to having faith in them.

{“I will give thanks to Your Name, for You have done wonder; counsels from afar in steadfast faith” (Isaiah 25:1).} This is the aspect of “I will give thanks to Your Name, for You have done wonder,” and through this, “counsels from afar in steadfast faith.” In other words, through the aspect of a vow, which is the aspect of wonder, there is a rectification of faith in the sages, whose counsels are from afar, in the aspect of “from afar she brings her bread” (Proverbs 31:10) .

For the words of Torah are sparse in their place but enriched from elsewhere (Yerushalmi, Rosh HaShanah 3:5) ; the sages derive their teachings from remote places in the Torah. It has been given over to them to expound the Torah as they please, with the Thirteen Principles through which the Torah is expounded, and we are obligated to have faith in all their words, in the aspect of “Do not stray from the word [they declare to you, either to the right or the left].”

(Translation by Moshe Mykoff of Torah 57:2 from Likkutei Moharan on Sefaria.com)

In this segment, Rav Nachman claims that a flaw in faith in the sages can be rectified through a vow. He likens the wonder of the vow to the wonder present in faith in the sages. A vow contains the two components we noted earlier: construction and absoluteness. When I take a vow, I forbid the thing to myself; it is not forbidden to the rest of the world, but through this vow that I have imposed upon myself, it is now forbidden to me in an absolute manner. The paradox in this is the ‘wonder’ of the vow - and it is this same wondrousness that is present in faith in the sages.

God created the world. Before, things could have turned out this way or that way - the world was a possibility in reality. But from the moment of creation onwards - that’s how it is! So too with regards to the Oral Torah and the vow.

A person has the ability to choose; equally important, however, is the ability to make the choice a reality. This is no small feat. For example, suppose I have decided to learn several pages of Gemara. The decision itself is important: I have set a destination that, in the natural order, is beyond where I am in the here and now. It takes courage to face a decision that I do not identify with in the present moment. In a way, a vow is difficult because it has an obligatory and distant quality which is in opposition with the spontaneity and belonging that we seek. We want an action that comes from within, not without. Usually, it is only when a person is in a place of crisis or tremendous awakening that he wishes to create fixed points - and it is then that he makes a vow. The role of a vow is to make a feeling of awakening permanent.

In my experience, the vow - something you take upon yourself - seems at first to be a burden: you hate it, you grit your teeth. But if you commit, over time the object gives true meaning to your life. Thus it is important to make a decision (however small) and commit to it - and this is preferable to making no decision at all. The decision creates a reality, allowing one to welcome Torah into their life.  Without decisions or their actualization, a person moves from one mood to another. A perfect person does not need a vow: he acts spontaneously – from within. But we are not at this level. Rav Nachman is saying: if you cannot create an obligation from inside, create an external obligation – the vow. If you make an externally driven effort - even if it does not express your inner being - it will give you faith in the sages, which will allow you, at a certain point, to interpret the Torah (or, in other words: to find your inner, singular world).

Besides the difficulty of vowing, there is the no less difficult - nor less important - ability to firmly stand by one’s decision, however alienating or distant it may be. A person may think: ‘Yesterday I decided that, today I’ll decide otherwise.’ But it is the ability to understand a personal decision as obligatory - binding - which gives it a spiritual nature, a concrete existence that is active in reality. Man’s tendency to make decisions and cancel them is symptomatic not of a psychological problem, but a cosmic one: our world is chaotic, unstable, ‘indecisive.’ The ability to solve this problematic behavior through a vow can be likened to the creation of the world in a universe of total chaos.

To put it differently, we can say that the vow is a form of speech that belongs to the real, and therefore it transcends any objective/subjective fault lines: it creates a reality, and thereby rectifies the nihilism that is embedded in a flawed faith in the sages.

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