This week's portion: spoils
Zeek magazine, summer 2009

Vows and obligations (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for one of this week's Torah portions, Matot, back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.

This week's portion, Matot, deals with promises and vows. Last year at this season I asked my congregation whether the words neder, shavuah, and isar rang any bells for them...and then I sang the first line of what is perhaps the most haunting melody in our lexicon: "Kol nidrei, v'esarei, v'charamei, v'konamei, v'chinuyei, u'shvuot..."

But what do these various synonyms signify? Rabbi Jonathan Kraus writes:

[I]n making oaths (sh'vuot), one either asserts that something is true (e.g., an oath of innocence) or promises to undertake an obligation (e.g., David's oath that his son, Solomon, would rule after him). By contrast, vows (nedarim) are conditional promises to dedicate something (or someone!) to the sanctuary. (e.g., Hannah's promise to dedicate her son to the sanctuary if God answers her prayer that she become fertile).

Does this distinction still have meaning for us? What is a neder today, now that there is no Temple to dedicate ourselves to? What does it mean to make a vow to Adonai, or to take an oath imposing an obligation on one’s soul? How might this be different from making a promise to another human being?

We read in Ecclesiastes 5:4 that "it is better not to vow at all than to vow and not fulfill." But in the Talmud it is written, “It is proper to swear to perform a mitzvah, for a man is permitted to urge himself on (to do a good deed)." Talk about mixed messages. What exactly is Torah trying to tell us about our promises and their significance?

In Broken and Made, Rabbi Rebecca Guterman writes:

In just over two months, Jewish communities worldwide will gather once again to hear the ancient words of Kol Nidrei. It is one of the most resonant moments we know in terms of our collective rituals; with it, in the presence of God and each other, we let go of the year's old vows. Then we stand for long moments, stripped bare of pretenses, in community and solemnity, and hope that the new vows we strive for will be ones that bring us more deeply into our lives. We pray for vows that will allow us to access our best and truest selves.

Her reminder is a little bit startling: can we really be so close to the Days of Awe? I thought I had all year to do the work of teshuvah, of perfecting my character in turning toward God, and yet she's counting the time until Kol Nidrei as a matter of weeks. She's right, of course, and this week's Torah portion is a useful reminder in that direction. The Days of Awe are coming -- maybe they are always already on their way -- and it behooves us to pay attention to our promises, both internal and external.

The words we use matter. This is one of the reasons I love doing weddings: when else do ordinary people pay such close and deep attention to the words that they say? The "Baruch She'amar" prayer we say each morning reminds us to bless the Holy One Who spoke and the world came into being. God's speech created worlds -- and so can ours, if we invest our words with mindfulness.

Rabbi Stacy K. Offner suggests another take on the importance of words, in The Women's Torah Commentary:

Matot offers us a precious gift. Matot does not treat words as cheap or expendable, but as the incredibly powerful blocks upon which an entire society stands or falls. Matot focuses upon the most powerful kind of word that a person can utter: a neder, "vow." A neder is an extraordinarily powerful kind of word, because it is not a word of description. It is a word of action...Matot reminds you that you can't simply "delete" the words you have uttered.

So far, so good. But Matot has the capacity to be problematic in another way: it describes the relationship between the vow of a woman and the vow of a man, and presumes that while a man's vow must always be taken seriously, a woman's vow can be annulled by her father or her husband, and only stands if neither of these men in authority chooses to void it. According to the mindset of Torah, women's vows just don't count the way men's vows do.

For many women today that's bound to be a challenging text. What garment can we weave out of these words that won't be painful and constricting for us to wear?

At its heart, I think this is a text about making wise commitments. This text implies that people tasked with caring for those who are vulnerable have the sacred obligation of helping those under their care to make safe and healthy promises.

Though we may reject the assumption that men are necessarily powerful and women are necessarily vulnerable, it's incumbent upon those in power to help protect those they care for. A parent who lets her child succumb to the seduction of a cult, or a mentor who lets his acolyte's self-worth hinge on an impossible promise: these are role models who are not living up to their role.

The verse about widows and divorced women -- in our paradigm, people who have some life-experience under their belts -- shows that Torah understands that those who are vulnerable can become empowered, able to make wise decisions.

As Louis Simpson writes in the poem "Profession of Faith," "It is the words we use, finally,/ that matter, if anything does." Torah acknowledges that our words matter...which is why it takes such care to ensure a protection mechanism for those whom society disempowers, so they won't bind themselves with words which might come back to harm them. Even if we find Torah's example of it dated or problematic, that core teaching still has tremendous value.

May this week's Torah portion remind us to take our promises seriously, to bear in mind the world-creating (and world-destroying) c apacity of human speech, and to emerge wiser and more careful from our engagement with this text, and all texts, and the embodied Torah of each others' lives.