At the beginning of Parshas Naso, the Torah states, “A man’s holies shall be his, and what a man gives to the Kohen shall be his” (Numbers 5:10).
At first glance, the verse is difficult to understand. A man’s ‘holies’ refers to the terumah tithing and other holy gifts that he gives to the Kohanim (priests) and the Holy Temple. So how can that which a man gives away to the Kohen still be his?
The commentators explain that when a man designates part of his possessions as a gift to the Kohanim, the gift is his in the sense that he retains tovas hana’ah, i.e. the right to decide which Kohen will receive it.
The Chofetz Chaim ZT”L offers a homiletical interpretation of this verse. He writes that the Torah here is alluding to a fundamental idea that a person should remember and carry with him throughout his life - that the only true possessions a man has in this world are the fruits of his spiritual labor. Only the Torah he learns and the mitzvos (good deeds) he performs are his true “friends”, because they will escort him through this life and into the World to Come. Everything else that he has, be it material things or even friends and family, can only accompany him so far, and then he is on his own.
The Midrash illustrates this idea with an incredibly powerful and life-changing parable:
A person once had three friends. He was extremely close to the first friend. He was somewhat friendly with the second friend. The third friend received hardly any of his attention. One day this man was called to make an appearance in the palace before the king. He was frightened. "What does the king want from me? When the king summons someone it is not a good sign." The man went to ask his first friend to accompany him while he stood before the king and to defend him if necessary. To his great shock, his friend flatly refused. The man then went to ask his second friend to join him in front of the king. This friend also refused, but did agree to at least accompany him to the gate of the palace, but after that he was on his own. The man was crushed. These were his two best friends, whom he had loved and cared for his whole life. What would he do now?
Having no choice, he turned to his third friend for help. He did not hold much hope. His close friends had already refused him. What could he expect from this casual friend? To his great surprise, his third friend happily agreed to accompany him in front of the king, and even offered to speak in his defense. And so it was. The third friend went with the man to the king and saved him from disaster.
Who is the first friend? That is a man's money. It is very dear to him. He spends much time earning it, investing it, counting it, spending it, and worrying about it. After 120 years, a person will have to stand in front of G-d, the King of Kings, to be judged on how he lived his life. Can he take his money with him when he dies? Can it help him now? Not at all.
The second friend in the parable is a man's family and friends. He spends time with them too, although not as much time as he spends at his job. However, unlike his money and material possessions, his friends and family stay with him after he dies, crying bitter tears as they accompany him to his final resting place, but after he is buried they go home and he is on his own.
Who is that third friend who will accompany him beyond burial and even speak on his behalf before G-d? It is the Torah he learned and the mitzvos he performed. They are the only things that he can take with him to the next world. They will always stand fast at his side.
This – explains the Chofetz Chaim - is what the Torah is alluding to in the verse mentioned above. Only a man’s holies and that which he gives away to the Kohen and to tzedakah (charity) are truly ‘his’ – there to accompany him and defend him in this world and the next.
[Sources: Kinder Torah on Ohr Somayach’s website: www.ohr.edu ]