This week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei, includes long descriptions of battles the Israelites fight, and a recounting of all of the places where they sojourned on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. But I want to focus on the first part of Matot, which focuses on VOWS. Much of this section describes when vows can be annulled and when they cannot, and we can discuss in our post-kiddush class why it is that women’s vows are treated differently from men’s. But here I want to think about vows themselves and why they matter.
Mattot opens with an injunction about the sanctity of our words: “And Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes . . . if a man takes a vow . . . he shall not desecrate his word; whatever issues from his mouth he shall do . . .”.
Whatever issues from his mouth, he shall do. That’s pretty unequivocal.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the terrible story of the king who vows that if his kingdom wins a battle, he will sacrifice the first thing that he sees when he returns from the war. And, of course, what is that first “THING” he sees? It is his daughter. But he has made a vow and must go through with it. Vows are not meant to be taken lightly.
Our word is our word. Promises are promises. And the words we utter are sacred and inviolate. If we disregard what we say, we have profaned and desecrated our words. That is why some people are careful to add the words bli neder—“without vowing”—whenever they say something that might be construed as a vow. That means that, should they be prevented from fulfilling what they expressed their intention to do, this would not constitute the grave offense of violating a vow. This, of course, in no way diminishes the regard we hold for our words, and the need to carry out one’s promises unless we are incapable for some reason of doing so.
Remember the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”? Doesn’t that saying sound naïve to us today? Because we know that names—words--CAN hurt and DO hurt. We see evidence of that every day in stories about bullying, and, in many cases of the disastrous consequences of that behavior. It used to be that kids were cruel to other kids in school or on the playground. But then you went home and could escape from the nastiness. But today, the omnipresence of the internet means that children—and, in some cases, adults—can never escape verbal cruelty. This phenomenon has become so pervasive that there are private and governmental organizations created to try to educate the public and stop the behavior.
Why does this matter?
Because we know that words have POWER. They have the power to hurt and the power to heal. In our Chumasch, Rabbi Kushner in the below-the-line commentary mentions that human beings are the only animals to be able to use language. I think that that view has now been debunked—we know that lots of other animals—including chimpanzees and maybe even dolphins—are capable of language. But Kushner also notes that humans are the only animals whose language can make words HOLY. And that is something we can all probably agree with. But I would also add that human beings are the only animals that can make words PROFANE. UNHOLY.
As we approach the High Holidays, we think of the words of Kol Nidre, where we declare that any promises to God that we make and are unable to keep in the New Year are publicly retracted and should not be held against us. Though those words have been turned against us by our detractors, there is in those words the recognition that we are fallible and that there may be good reasons outside of our control why we cannot keep our promises. As we approach the High Holidays, let us pray that we might live in an orderly world where promises can be kept, where words are a source of healing and comfort, and where our vows reflect what is best in each of us.
AND LET US SAY AMEN.