Friday, May 31, 2024

Parshat Bechukotai - The Pele of a Vow


The majority of this parsha discusses various punishments that befall someone who doesn’t study Torah, doesn’t fulfill the Torah’s commandments, doesn’t seek deeper understanding of the Torah, mocks the sages, mocks faith in the tzaddikim, and prevents others from following the sages’ teachings. There are five groups of seven punishments listed, and they are quite daunting. The parsha culminates with exile, but Hashem reassures that even in exile, He will not reject or loathe the Jewish people to destroy them. Instead, they will do teshuva (repentance) from exile and return. Hashem promises to be with them even in exile, ensuring their return.

Immediately following this, the parsha addresses the laws of arachim, or endowment valuations. This involves a type of neder, or pledge, in the form of a vow of tzedakah (charity) given to the Beit HaMikdash (the Temple). The verse reads, “ki yafli neder be’erkecha nefashot laHashem” – if a person expresses a vow of a monetary value of people to Hashem. It categorizes pledges based on age and gender, such as valuing a person over 60, over 20, over 5, or over five months. The categories extend to animals, land, and other possessions.

The question arises: why is this parsha, detailing the punishments for not following the Torah and the subsequent exile (which allows the land of Israel to recover the sabbatical Shemitah and Jubilee years that were neglected), immediately followed by the parsha of tzedakah and endowment valuations through a vow? What is the connection between these sections, and what lesson can we learn from their juxtaposition?

The parsha seems to be telling us that, God forbid, to avoid a repetition of this damage and to prevent further harm, the solution is a neder, or a pledge, particularly tzedakah in the form of a neder. Rebbe Nachman discusses this in Lesson 57, emphasizing the power of a neder and the importance of fulfilling it immediately. Reb Noson specifically highlights that giving charity as a neder helps connect a person to the highest spiritual levels. The pasuk in this week’s parsha states, “Ki yafli neder” – a person *expresses* a vow. The word “yafli” is rooted in “pele,” meaning wondrous, which in Kabbalistic terminology refers to the Keter, the gateway to the Infinite Light.

Reb Noson explains that a neder, or vow, allows a person to create a new Torah, something that wasn’t there before. For example, a person can eat a piece of cake that is kosher and medically safe. However, if the person vows not to eat the cake to work on self-control over desires for food and sweets, then eating that cake becomes as prohibited as eating on Yom Kippur or desecrating Shabbat. This transformation occurs through the power of a vow.

Reb Noson asks how one can create Torah from nothing. He explains that this is the hidden Torah, found everywhere in Creation. Even in items unrelated to Torah laws on a basic level, a person can activate Torah configurations, making something forbidden that was previously permissible. This is the power of the neder.

When a person takes a neder, it elevates them to the level of the Keter, the gateway to the Infinite Light and the source of the Torah. By making a vow, a person accesses the source above the Torah we have today, creating a new extension of Torah from the root. Now, this cake is forbidden for the person, as strictly as if it were a violation of Shabbat or eating on Yom Kippur.

That’s the power of the neder. It ascends to the Pele, which is why the verse uses the words “ki yafli.” While “yafli” is translated as “express,” it shares a root with “Pele,” referring to the source, or Keter. Pele is synonymous with “the source” or “Keter.” Remarkably, Rashi comments on the word for valuation, “erech” (ayin, reish, kaf), which appears in the parsha as “erkecha,” adding a second kaf at the end. This addition is unusual since “erech” and “erkecha” have the same meaning. Rashi notes this anomaly, stating he doesn’t know what the extra kaf signifies.

In Kabbalah, the letter kaf symbolizes the Keter. Rebbe Nachman refers to the phrase “ein Keter belo kaf” in Lesson 6 of Likutey Moharan, meaning Keter corresponds to the kaf, and you need kaf to have Keter. Rav Yaakov Meir Shechter explains that the initial letter of a word, its shape, and concept represent the word itself. For Keter, the opening letter is kaf, indicating the concept of Keter. Rebbe Nachman teaches in Lesson 24 of Likutey Moharan that Keter is the domain of not knowing. The famous dictum “tachlit hayedea delo neda” means the ultimate goal of knowledge is to recognize that you don’t know. Emunah (faith), which transcends all learning, represents this higher level of Keter.

Thus, Rashi’s statement, “I don’t know,” about the extra kaf can be understood as pointing to the concept of not knowing, or Keter. The extra kaf in “erkecha” signifies that these vows connect a person to Keter. This added kaf indicates that with a neder, one connects to the root of the Torah, a level higher than the existing Torah, creating a new Torah. A vow transforms something permissible into something forbidden. For example, a kosher piece of cake becomes as prohibited as eating on Yom Kippur or desecrating Shabbat due to the neder. While others may eat it without issue, the person who made the neder cannot, because the power of the vow, derived from Keter, places it beyond intellectual grasp, embodying Rashi’s notion of “I don’t know.”

With that said, we can now understand the connection between this section of Parshat Bechukotai, which discusses punishments, and the section of arachin, which discusses vows and endowment valuations. When a Jew realizes how far they have fallen and fears the consequences of not learning Torah and not exerting themselves spiritually, they may wonder where they can find the strength to avoid such pitfalls. They know their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, how easily they can falter. They ask Hashem for the strength and power to avoid falling into the unfortunate circumstances mentioned in Parshat Bechukotai. They do not want these punishments to recur, even though they are currently in exile. Despite the challenges, there is still hope for salvation.

Throughout history, Jews have experienced times of peace and times of persecution, such as the Holocaust and pogroms. In these difficult times, people wonder how to avoid punishment due to a laxity in Torah observance and learning. The answer, according to Reb Noson, is the power of a vow – a neder. Giving tzedakah is good, but giving tzedakah through a neder is even more powerful. In Likutey Halakhot, Reb Noson gives an example: a person has a coin to give to charity and a charity box in front of them. They can say, “Hashem, I take upon myself as a neder to give this coin to charity,” and then immediately put it in the charity box. By doing this, they not only fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah but also fulfill it in the form of a vow. They commit to giving that specific coin and cannot change their mind or delay the donation.

Usually, when giving tzedakah, one can choose which dollar or coin to give, or even refrain from giving altogether. However, when it is done as a vow, they are bound to fulfill it. This connects them to the world of neder, to the realm of Pele – “ki yafli neder,” the domain of Keter, this high spiritual level. Rebbe Nachman explains in Lesson 57 that this action reconnects a person to the root of the Torah, boosting their spiritual energy.

Now, although the Shulchan Aruch advises against making nedarim because they can be very dangerous – for instance, the Gemara warns, “ba’avon nedarim banim metim” – for the sin of not fulfilling your vow, a person’s young children may God forbid die. This danger makes us cautious about making vows. However, in cases where the vow is fulfilled immediately, such as when a person says, “I take upon myself as a vow to give tzedakah,” and then does so without delay, this is considered beneficial. The intent here is to activate the neder, the vow, in order to connect to the level of Pele. This is the rationale behind the juxtaposition of the parsha about valuation vows with the parsha about punishments for not fulfilling the Torah. It teaches us that vows, when done properly, give a person strength and power from the root of the Torah itself, thereby giving them more spiritual energy.

In a sense, we can see this concept reflected in the word “erech.” Erech (ayin 70, reish 200 and kaf 20) has a gematria of 290, which is also the gematria of “ratz,” to run. When a person activates a neder, the “erech” – their valuation vow – connects them to the “kaf,” the Keter. They are running towards the Keter, meaning they are tapping into a higher level of strength and energy to help them fulfill, study, delve into, and listen to the Torah and the words of the sages, with the help of Hashem.

May we merit not to panic or fear further descent in our exile, but rather to use the tools and teachings that the Torah and the tzaddikim advise us, in order to connect to the higher levels of Torah – its roots – which will only strengthen our observance of the Torah that we have. 

This article also appears on the BRI website: 

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Shabbat Shalom UmeVorach!
Meir Elkabas

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