And Moses spoke onto the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel, saying: This is the thing that the Lord has commanded. When a man makes a vow onto the Lord or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word: He shall do according to all that precedes out of his mouth.(Num. 30:2-3).
The juxtaposition of passages in the Torah usually suggests an intrinsic connection between them. In this instance, the laws relating to the making of vows are followed by the description of the war of retaliation against the Midianites for having seduced the Israelites and attempting to shatter their sacred family structure.
People most commonly make vows when they are vulnerable or/and crisis. When they are frightened and in particular need of God’s help, they often offer to do something significant in return for God’s anticipated beneficence. People commonly vow to do some good or to make positive personal changes if they or somebody close to them recovers from serious illness, if they are hoping for a victory in litigation or competition or if they are in crisis.
Scripture is replete with accounts of this all too human tendency.
When the patriarch Jacob first goes into exile, attempting to avoid his brother Esau’s lethal vengeance, he is lonely, dislocated, and terrified. His future is utterly uncertain. He acknowledges his crushing vulnerability by making a vow, bargaining, as it were, with God: And Jacob vowed a vow, saying: ‘If God will be with me and will protect me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and garments to wear, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God, and this stone that I have set up for a pillar shall be God’s house: And of all that You will give me, I shall surely give a tenth onto you.’ (Gen. 28:20-22).
When the prophet Jonah attempts to flee from the politically repugnant task that God has given him, his ship is caught in a colossal storm. Jonah accepts responsibility for having caused the disaster and offers to sacrifice himself to save all the other passengers and crew. With great hesitation they accede to his suggestion, fearing divine retribution for his blood: “Therefore they cried onto the Lord and said: We beseech You O Lord, we beseech You. Let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: For you, O Lord have done as it pleased You. So they took up Jonah and cast him forth into the sea. And the sea ceased from her raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice onto the Lord and made vows. (Jonah 1:14-16). Jonah then utters a majestic prayer of thanksgiving from the belly of the great fish, concluding with a vow: But I will sacrifice onto You with the soul of thanksgiving. I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord. And the Lord spoke unto the fish and it disgorged Jonah onto the dry land. (Jonah 2:9-10).
War is the most common trigger for feelings of vulnerability. For example, when Israel was belligerently confronted by the Canaanite King of Arad, who even succeeded in taking many Israelites prisoner, they reacted predictably: And Israel vowed a vow onto the Lord and said: “If you will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities”. And the Lord harkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites. And they utterly destroyed them and their cities. (Num. 21:2-3).
A similar phenomenon occurs when Yiftach [Jephtah] prepares to go to war against the powerful Ammonites: And Yiftach vowed a vow onto the Lord and said: If You shall surely deliver the children of Ammon into my hands, then whatsoever will come out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon shall be the Lord’s, and I shall offer it up as a sacrifice.
And Yiftach passed over on the children of Ammon to wage war against them and the Lord delivered them into his hands (Judges 11:30-32).
These texts clearly explain the juxtaposition of the laws of vowing with the frightening experience of going to war. But once the crisis has passed and people no longer feel vulnerable, they often forget their commitments and minimize their responsibilities. For this reason the Torah emphasizes the sacredness of human verbal commitments: This is the thing that the Lord has commanded. When a man makes a vow onto the Lord or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word: He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Num. 30:2-3).
However, important and sacred as verbal commitments may be, there is a strong likelihood that many commitments are made in the heat of passion. The person who makes a vow under such circumstances is likely totally unaware of the long-term effects of his/her verbal commitment. Two striking examples from my rabbinic notebook will illustrate what I mean. The first occurred in my office in Durban. A member of my congregation asked for an urgent meeting. “Rabbi, I have done an awful thing”, he began. “My business partner caused me great financial harm. In my fury, I swore on my daughter’s life to never again have contact with him or members of his family. Rabbi, what will happen if we meet accidentally or if I do come into contact with someone who, unbeknownst to me, is related to him? Will I be responsible for my daughter’s death?”
The second case occurred in London. The person who approached me was dismayed by a vow made at a time of great bitterness. He had been in business with his brother and they had experienced an ugly falling out. Angrily, he had vowed that neither he nor his children and grandchildren would ever speak to his brother and his children and children’s children. The years had passed and the cousins were bewildered and deeply hurt by their enforced and mysterious separation from one another. The effects of his verbal commitment had increasingly depressed the person who had made the vow.
Because of the unintended consequences of vows, the Torah provided for their nullification. A father could disallow the vow made by his daughter, or a husband by his wife, if it were clear that she would not be able to fulfill her verbal commitment appropriately. (Num. 30:4ff). The Sages understood the Torah’s intent by instituting the practice of the formal annulment of vows in the presence of a Beth Din. If the person could honestly declare that he or she retroactively regretted the verbal commitment, saying: “If I had known then what I know now to be the consequences of my vow, I certainly would not have taken such a vow.” Both the gentleman in Durban and the businessman in London could certainly make such a statement before the ad hoc Beth Din. Each was enormously relieved when the members of the Beth Din declared his vow null and void.
According to the Kabbalah, the annulment of vows goes far beyond facilitating emotional relief and creating catharsis. Belief in reincarnation [gigul neshamot] is a fundamental Jewish mystical precept. We return to earth in different bodies to correct mistakes made in previous incarnations [gilgulim], or to complete uncompleted tasks. Oaths, vows, and curses that have been neither honored nor annulled in any previous lifetime continue in force in subsequent gilgulim and are the cause of unusually toxic consequences. In such circumstances Kabbalists recommend the ceremony of nullification of vows. Verbal commitments, it would seem, are really forever unless they are properly annulled.
Considered in this light, the nullification of vows can be as important as their fulfillment. The case of Yiftach is a striking illustration of this truth. And Yiftach vowed a vow onto the Lord and said: ‘If You shall surely deliver the children of Ammon into my hands, then whatsoever will come out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon shall be the Lord’s, and I shall offer it up as a sacrifice’. And Yiftach passed over on the children of Ammon to wage war against them and the Lord delivered them into his hands (Judges 11:30-32). The first person to emerge from his house to greet him after his victory was his daughter. Tragically, he considered himself bound by his verbal commitment.
The Sages of the Midrash were astonished that he did not seek annulment of his vow. He would have had the opportunity to truthfully articulate his regret and to assert that, had he known that his daughter would be the first to emerge, he would not have taken so impetuous a vow: Was not Pinchas available at the time to effect the nullification of his vow? [However] we must surmise that Pinchas declared:’ He needs me [to effect the nullification of his vow] so why should I go to him’? And Yiftach must have said: ‘I am chief of the general staff of Israel. Why should I go [cap in hand] to Pinchas’? In the meantime while each was debating the merits of his own argument the maiden perished.(Bamidbar Rabbah 60:3).
The rabbinic take on the arrogant intransigence of both Pinchas and Yiftach conveys a profound message. We are often unable to be flexible, acknowledge our weaknesses and errors, and retreat from hard lines we have taken. We rationalize our rigidity by claiming that our words are sacred and publicly polish our halos without regard to the negative consequences of holding on to promises that no longer make sense. Some politicians are notorious for making promises before elections that they have no intention of keeping. Others are guilty of sticking to commitments made under circumstances that no longer obtain. Keeping one’s word is a mitzvah, but breaking it may be a still greater mitzvah. The tragedy of Yiftach’s daughter is a reminder of this truth.