As the forty year sojourn in the Wilderness comes to a close, the Jews are presented with a MITZVAH, which at first glance seems strange. Why is the command to fulfill one’s oaths among the last decrees made to the Jews as they approach the banks of the Jordan? Of course, Moshe will add other pertinent decrees in the book of Devarim, but that wasn’t part of this chronological story. That text was our great leader’s valedictory. So why emphasize oaths at this critical juncture?
The straightforward answer is really quite simple: Society requires its members to fulfill their commitments. To this prosaic answer can be added a curious insight. Usually the Torah refers to the Tribes as SHEVATIM, but here they are called MATOT. Both words probably derive from a word for stick or staff of power. However, the word MATOT can be related to the term for ‘incline’, to direct in a certain direction. The tribes, indeed, the entire nation, can be moved by the individual commitments of its citizens, fulfilled or neglected.
Here is the verse which introduces this topic:
If a person makes a vow (NEDER) to the Eternal that he will do something or swears an oath (SHAVUA) that he won’t do something, he must not break (YACHEL) his word. One must do everything which departs the lips (Bamidbar 30:3).
So many technical points to parse! I will briefly deal with a few. Why two terms for oath? There are three famous distinctions made between the two categories of oaths/vows (NEDER, SHAVUA): one applies to the person (GAVRA), while the other pertains to the object (CHEFTZA); one is negative (I will not), while the other is positive (I will do something); one is secular in nature, while the other pertains to the realm of the sacred.
Also, the word used for non-compliance of the promise is also unexpected. Why use the term VAYACHEL? There were several simpler expressions available. This root (Yod, Chet, Lamed) can be related to the word CHOL, or profane. In other words, when a person neglects an oral obligation that individual has profaned their power of speech, which our Sages viewed as the source of our unique position in the world. We are the creatures who speak. Don’t mess with that special Divine gift.
Rav Michael Hattin, in an article on the Yeshivat Har Etziyon website, introduces another important point about the placement of this precept: As Israel drew close to the borders of the Promised Land and made preparations for entering it…The tribes of Gad and Reuven, blessed with massive flocks, cast their eyes upon the fertile expanse of the Amorite territory and desired it, even as the rest of the tribes were poised to cross the Jordan and fight in the new land. Needless to say, Moshe was not enthusiastic about their request…Moshe had concluded his remarks to these tribes, who themselves had suggested the solution of providing a strike force, with a charge: “…and fulfill it in accordance with that which you speak with your mouths!” (32:24). This expression, stressing the need for a person to stand by his word, immediately recalls the opening section of our Parsha: “If a person vows to God or takes an oath, he shall not profane his pledge, but shall fulfill it IN ACCORDANCE WITH ALL THAT HE SPOKE WITH HIS MOUTH”. Thus, Moshe’s charge to Gad and Reuven provides the perfect counterpoint to the Parsha’s opening section. With the Parsha’s conclusion, the need for such an opening salvo suddenly became perfectly clear.
Rav Hattin concludes: A vow to God must be fulfilled even if it is onerous, and release from vows is no simple matter. But a vow is not to be undertaken cavalierly and without good cause.
His conclusion brings us to the overall importance of vows, and their position in Jewish thought. Verbal commitments loom large in the religious psyche of Judaism. Is there a more dramatic moment in Jewish liturgy than KOL NIDRE (All My Vows)? And everyday we end our individual silent devotion with: My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully. Much of the Musar genre concerns talking. Rav Soloveitchik points out that ‘associated with the original sin is also the lie.’ We are obsessed with speech, and its complications.
To help us better understand Judaism’s position on this topic of speech and vows, I would like to quote from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein:
The Jewish perspective stands somewhere in between the ancient belief in the magical powers of words and the modern, rational approach that ridicules oaths and curses. Halakha recognizes a metaphysical, supernatural power to speech, but on condition that it originates from a rational source.
Here, again, are the ideas of the great Rosh Yeshiva putting this critical issue of speech into its proper place in our tradition. He views it as a sacred issue in Judaism, but, unlike other ancient civilizations, we attempt to see the issues logically. In a long address from the year 2000, Reb Aharon offered many views on the virtue or danger of vows. He concluded that, indeed, there are both:
Through the institution of oaths, the Torah allows the individual to express his values and wishes. However, one must remember that he and the Master of the world do not share equal standing. Nedarim are a remarkable tool that the Almighty provided for us. When we use them inappropriately, in an attempt to equate ourselves with the Giver of the Torah with the intent of rebellion, then the NEDER becomes disgraceful; but when they are used properly, with sincere intentions, then the NEDER is proper and praiseworthy.
Like so many spiritual issues, NEDARIM require us to tread lightly and carefully. Many times it is prudent to refrain from oaths; many times it is inspiring to swear a commitment. It’s our job to recognize the difference. Good luck!