If a man makes a vow to the Eternal or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.
If a woman makes a vow to the Eternal or assumes an obligation while still in her father’s household by reason of her youth, and her father learns of her vow or her self-imposed obligation and offers no objection, all her vows shall stand and every self-imposed obligation shall stand. But if her father restrains her on the day he finds out, none of her vows or self-imposed obligations shall stand; and the Eternal will forgive her, since her father restrained her. (Numbers 30: 3–6)
As Susannah Heschel once said, “words create worlds” (quoted in Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Jewish and Female in America [New York: Doubleday, 1991], p. 49). Nowhere is this more beautifully and poignantly apparent than in the act of articulating a vow. With such words, in whatever form they may take, we promise that no matter what external realities bring, our internal intentions will stand. Vows hold out assurance that some things in life may indeed be forever, in a culture that would constantly have us discard, dispose of, and reinvent. When we elevate an inward hope to an outward promise, whether made to ourselves or to another person, the world can shift in ways both subtle and dramatic. We create something to believe in—a solid branch to hold onto in the midst of ever changing waters.
The opening verses of Matot, this week’s portion, are all about the articulation of vows. Here, the Torah is concerned with who takes a vow or an oath, and how the questions of age, gender, and marital status influence whether or not they remain bound to their promises. (And the answers do vary considerably for men and women.)
While such questions clearly play out differently for us today, the challenge of imbuing vows with sacredness remains. We need look no further than our life-cycle ceremonies, and the plethora of creative variations springing from them, to witness the ways in which we solidify our relationship with God and our sense of place in the world through our promises to love and care for one another.
How is it, then, that these verses provide us with a way out of our vows in practically the same breath in which they emphasize the paramount importance of our promises? If vows are meant to enrich our lives by holding us to the commitments we make, then how is it that we are shown the way out of vows at all?
It’s possible that Matot is telling us something else about holding fast to our vows. Think about how often we find ourselves making promises along the lines of maintaining composure in a difficult situation, or not saying or doing things our parents said or did when we ourselves become parents. And then we find that the conditions we have bound ourselves to change. Sometimes our response to this might be to dig even deeper into a vow and, in so doing, find that holding ourselves to it is meaningful and right. Other times, however, we might let go of a vow, with all the bittersweet complexity that implies.
No one person, or text for that matter, can give us a blueprint showing which road is called for every time we are forced to rethink a vow. What we might consider, however, is that the least constructive reaction is to blame ourselves when we reckon with promises made and find they simply cannot remain promises kept. Think again of the image of a vow as a solid branch to hold. Vows are as significant and sacred as they are precisely because the prospect of embracing or offering constancy amidst change touches on longings we all share for more constancy—and less change. But when unforeseen circumstances arise, letting go of a vow does not constitute betrayal. If engaged in thoughtfully, it may actually be a process that can usher us into growth, into new and better ways of being.
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, 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.
Words indeed create worlds. Baruch she-amar v’hayah haolam—“Blessed is God who spoke and the world came to be.” Words sustain reality. But when reality changes, we may need new words to reflect that. Let these words of Matot help prepare us, as we search out a forgiving balance of holding the words of our promises closely enough to keep their seriousness in mind, yet loosely enough to acknowledge that sometimes letting them go is what will truly bring us forward, thus allowing us to take our part in creating the world anew.
By the way . . .
- Let all our vows and oaths, all the promises we made and the obligations we incur to You, O God, between this Yom Kippur and the next, be null and void should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them. Then may we be absolved of them. Kol Nidrei, in Gates of Repentance [New York: CCAR, 1996], p. 252)
- You can still hold on but forgive, forgive and give for as long as we both shall live. . . . Listen. Slide the weight from your shoulders and move forward. You are afraid you might forget, but you never will. You will forgive and remember. . . . Move on. Walk forward into the light. (Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible [New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998], p. 543)
- Matot outlines the circumstances under which people are either held to or excused from their vows. How do we today understand the role of divine and human forgiveness when it comes to unfulfilled vows?
- The words neder l’Adonai—a vow to God—speak to the sacredness of making a vow. Are there ever times when breaking a vow can be seen as holding sacredness as well?
Matot, Numbers 30:2-32:42
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,215-1,229; Revised Edition, pp. 1,099-1,112;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 989-1,012