The middle of the road is for horses
“That which is uttered by your lips, you must keep and implement; exactly as you vowed to the Lord your God.”
That is the clear and unambiguous message of how one is obligated to honor one’s commitments that shall be read in synagogues this week. Indeed, a large portion of the Torah is dedicated to emphasizing that one must solemnly abide by all that one pledges by vow.
I was consequently surprised by the intensity of pressure that was applied upon me this past Shavuot, on my way out of shul in the evening, when a son of a friend, 30-years-old, a God-fearing fellow, approached me and asked if I would annul his vow.
For background, allow me to explain that in order to annul a person’s vow, the person who has vowed must demonstrate to the one who is to annul the vow, that since the vow was made, circumstances have changed, and if the vower had known at the time of the vow what was discovered afterwards, he or she would never have had made the vow in the first place.
“What was your vow?” I asked with considerable curiosity, as I had never been asked to annul a vow before. “When I was 20-years-old, I vowed that I would never eat avkat halav nochri (powder made from the ‘milk of a gentile’).” It should be noted that many dairy delicacies contain such powder, made from milk that was produced without a Jew’s participation, yet most people who eat only kosher food do not abstain from it, and indeed the Chief Rabbinate allows it.
“Interesting that, of all times, you choose the evening of Shavuot to annul this particular vow,” I cheekily responded. “I understand that you have already spotted what your mother has prepared for dessert this evening.” And in order to assist him in his ploy, I added: “Tell me, if you knew back then, 10 years ago, that you would miss the cheesecake that will be served tonight, would you have made that vow?”
“Definitely!” he answered honestly. “I knew exactly what delights include avkat halav nochri.” “So why then do you wish to annul your vow,” I asked, already a little concerned, spotting that my friend’s son displayed signs of distress. “Listen,” he explained, with admirable sincerity, “10 years ago, I was a yeshiva bocher at the peak of my fervor. I thought it wasn’t appropriate to eat avkat halav nochri, and in any case, I wanted to retreat from the indulgences of the material world, so I made the vow. Today, I am in a totally different place. My daily routine is full of sin, and lacks spirituality. It seems ridiculous to me that of all things, I should be exacting on this particular stricture.”
“So tell me,” I attempted to resume helping him, “had you known at the age of 20, that in another 10 years, you would be on a different spiritual plane, one that you perceive as being far lower than your level at the time of the vow, would you have made the vow?”
“Of course!” he maintained his integrity. “I knew already back then what would happen to me when I would eventually leave the yeshiva. That’s precisely the reason I made the vow in the first place!”
“So on what basis, then, do you suggest I annul your vow?” I asked, entreating him to help me to help him.
“I dunno,” he admitted, “You’re one of the rabbis of Beit Hillel, no? Don’t you permit everything?”
I did not annul his vow, and to the best of my knowledge, he missed out on his mother’s coveted cheesecake that evening. And this is what I explained to him:
The rabbis and rabbaniyot of Beit Hillel do not “permit everything”; they take into account a wide range of considerations, and perceive reality in all its complexity. When they deliberate whether it is permissible to invite a non-religious relative or friend for a Shabbat meal, even if it is obvious that that person will travel on Shabbat to attend, the rabbis of Beit Hillel are most distraught over the possibility of the desecration of Shabbat. However, at the same time, they are also distressed by the alternative of severing non-religious people from their families, or losing the opportunity to expose them to their roots. When one stirs into the same pot, not only Shabbat, but also family, the unity of the nation, sharing the tradition with someone who never experienced it, brotherly love and more, it is possible that Shabbat will be set aside, with great pain, in the name of other values and goals, which together create a necessity even more compelling than averting the desecration of Shabbat, which may be required in order to effect those values.
By contrast, if a fellow approaches me, charming as he may be, with a request to allow him to lodge some cheesecake into his mouth, while ignoring the severity of the duty to be true to all that comes out of one’s mouth, without any moral, ethical or spiritual gain, why would one allow him?
“I am not a compromiser,” I explained to him. “I am, in fact, very zealous, but to many values, simultaneously. I am fanatical not only for Shabbat and Kashrut, but also for the dignity of mankind, for loving one’s fellow man, for mutual responsibility, for compassion for the weak, for pursuing justice, and much more. When Shabbat or Kashrut conflict with other lofty values, then indeed, with great hesitation, care and even pain, they may be temporarily discarded. But when they stand alone, without any clash with another value, again I shall guard them fervently.”
“Only horses travel in the middle of the road,” Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk would entreat his followers. “Men travel on the extremes!”
It is possible that the outside observer perceives that one adopting this approach seems to be in the middle of the road, but that illusion is due to the tension between competing extremes, and never due to convenience.
Later, on the night of Shavuot, during a break from studies, I visited my friend at his house; after all, I had not vowed never to eat avkat halav nochri!