This week’s parshah, Parshas Matos, begins with the discussion of vows. In the context of this discussion, the Torah commands us: “You shall not profane your words” (BaMidbar 30:3). Rashi interprets this to mean that one should not make his words “chulin,” or profane. In other words, this is a general command to not speak d’varim b’teilim – meaningless words, wasted words. This seems like a novel idea. Why would this be such a terrible sin? Lying, defamation, and lashon ha’ra are clearly harmful and negative; their prohibition is not surprising. Why, though, is wasting words so severe that it warrants specific mention? It appears to be neither harmful nor evil – simply unnecessary. The question we must address, then, is why are wasted words both so enjoyable and so spiritually harmful?
The Power of Speech
Speech is the process of taking abstract and spiritual thought, that which is beyond words – beyond finite form – and giving it concrete form and expression. When one speaks, he takes his inner consciousness, his inner self, and expresses it out into the physical world. This is the very mechanism that Hashem used to create the world itself. He took that which is infinite, and condensed it into a finite expression of that spiritual and ethereal essence. That is why the Torah describes Hashem’s creative process as a form of speech; Hashem “spoke” existence into being.
Our words have creative power. We can now begin to understand the notable emphasis the Torah places on using words appropriately. When used correctly, they are the mechanism through which we can express our inner selves out into the world, creating genuine and powerful change around us, spreading ideas that ripple and reverberate from one heart to another. The proper use of words allows one to express his or her inner, higher, spiritual thoughts; wasting words is taking that very gift and using it for nothing. Instead of an expression of infinite spiritual significance, these meaningless words are just that, meaningless. This same principle applies to wasting time. Time is the tool that allows us to concretize our infinite spiritual potential into that which is real – to actualize our higher drives and desires in this physical world. Wasting time, then, means taking the very gift of life, the opportunity to create eternity, and transforming that potential into nothing. Such a lifestyle is akin to riding a train that’s going nowhere, or driving a car aimlessly in an endless circle – it’s pointless. Without a destination, without creating something meaningful with our time, we throw away our potential. Constructive breaks and time to reenergize are necessary and healthy, but a lifestyle of aimlessness is destructive.
The Desire for N’vuah and Avodah Zarah
In order to understand why we have such a strong desire to waste time and do absolutely nothing, we must study the historical origin of this desire. Until a few thousand years ago, human beings had a nearly uncontrollable desire for transcendence. This manifested in two unique drives: n’vuah – prophecy, and avodah zarah – idolatry. Both of these drives embodied our desire to transcend the limits of the finite self, to reach into that which is higher, that which is beyond us. The drive for n’vuah is the drive to connect back to our ultimate source, Hashem Himself. This is a deeply spiritual, existential desire for transcendence, connection, meaning, and accomplishment. As with all drives, there is a negative expression for this desire to transcend – the desire for idolatry. Idolatry takes the root desire for transcendence and corrupts it, using the drive to rise above oneself in a way that cuts one off from Hashem. The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Avodah Zarah 1), the Ramchal (Derech Hashem), and others explain that the sin of avodah zarah lies in worshiping the intermediaries that serve Hashem’s functions in this world rather than sourcing the world, and everything in it, back to Hashem Himself. The statues that people “worship” are merely tangible representations of the higher forces that idolaters serve.
Therefore, there is potential for good in the root of avodah zarah – it is a process of looking upwards to the source of this world, to that which is beyond us. Their mistake lies in stopping at the intermediaries, those who are merely servants of Hashem. This is both misguided and evil.
While the ancient sin of avodah zarah may be easy to understand, its appeal is now almost impossible to relate to. In the modern age, avodah zarah seems foolish, senseless, and pointless. We are no longer enticed by it, and we cannot even grasp how one could be. However, this inability to grasp the appeal of avodah zarah is not incidental. The world has changed, the very inner workings of the human consciousness have shifted, and we no longer crave for idolatry. Unfortunately, we no longer crave for n’vuah and transcendence either, at least not to the same degree. Why is this? What has changed?
In the Second Temple Era, the Anshei K’neses HaG’dolah – the Men of the Great Assembly – recognized the destruction that the overwhelming craving for avodah zarah was causing. A challenge is only worthwhile when there is a good chance at success. When it came to avodah zarah, klal Yisrael were failing miserably. They were no longer able to overcome its appeal, so it had become purely harmful, no longer a source of potential merit in overcoming it. It was no longer a challenge or risk; it was a plague, a source of spiritual death. Something had to be done; the desire for avodah zarah had to be obliterated.
The Gemara in Yoma 69b relates in detail the steps they took to excise the desire for avodah zarah from the human psyche. The Sages fasted for three days and nights, after which the yeitzer ha’ra for avodah zarah came flaming out of the Kodesh HaKodashim – the Holy of Holies! They were able to contain and neutralize this flaming inclination, which is why we no longer have the desire for idolatry. An important question we must ask, though, is: Why did the yeitzer ha’ra for avodah zarah, an abhorrent sin, come from the Kodesh HaKodashim – the holiest and most transcendent place on Earth?
We can understand this seeming inconsistency based on the idea we previously developed about avodah zarah. Avodah zarah is a corruption of the spiritual desire to transcend and connect with Hashem. When correctly manifested, this same drive leads one to connect with Hashem in the deepest of ways – through n’vuah. The drive that emerged from the Kodesh HaKodashim was the desire to transcend. When it was destroyed, both the desire for idolatry and the desire for prophecy were destroyed along with it. Prophecy and idolatry are not opposites; they are divergent manifestations of a single drive. The difference lies only in how the drive is harnessed, whether for evil and idolatry or spiritual transcendence and n’vuah.
It is important to note that although this drive was essentially abolished, it was not, however, completely destroyed. We still possess a yearning to transcend, and we still struggle with the core concept of avodah zarah – to correctly and fully source ourselves back to Hashem. Nevertheless, this drive was significantly diminished, and the desire to transcend that we feel now cannot be compared to the original. However, there was one more dramatic change that resulted from this new reality: We began to tremendously enjoy wasting time.
The Desire for Nothing
What happens when you remove an organ from the body? What remains is empty space. If you remove a kidney or liver, what remains is the empty space that this organ used to occupy. The same thing applies to spiritual organs as well. Within our consciousness, there used to be a spiritual organ – the drive to transcend. It was an incredible desire to intimately connect to that which is transcendent, to Hashem Himself. We had an antenna, a receiver, a transmitter that connected us to a higher dimension. This organ was also connected to our drive for achievement, accomplishment, and destination. It drove us towards our goals, towards living a life of purpose and meaning. But that was removed. What is there in its place? Nothing – nothing at all!
When we lost this spiritual organ, the desire to transcend, what filled that empty space is not simply a lack of spiritual desire. What took its place it is an incredible desire to connect to nothing, to do nothing, to talk about nothing. But we have to understand that this space of spiritual emptiness is not simply a lack of spiritual desire. What was once the pleasure of transcending the self and connecting to something higher has been replaced with the pleasure and desire to exist in a state of endpoint and non-movement. Instead of speaking to connect to a higher world, there is a desire to speak for no reason at all. Instead of spending one’s life devoted to a higher truth, committed to growth and development, there is an incredible desire to simply waste one’s time away.
Reclaiming Our Mission
These truths can be hard to hear, as the struggle described is a genuine one. However, we must acknowledge this deep truth. It is only if we understand our overwhelming desire to waste time that we can hope to take back control over our lives. We need to live growth-oriented lives full of purpose and spiritual accomplishment. May we be inspired to harness the extraordinary potential within us, utilizing the power of time and speech, and wasting as little as possible. May we attempt to refill that spiritual organ within our consciousness, striving for greatness and truth, and correctly using our time in this world to build up to our ultimate destination.