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Parsha Re'eh

August 18, 2015

This Year No More Vows!
Shmuel Herzfeld
Re’eh 5775

One of the things that it is common to see at weddings in general is for the bride and groom to recite wedding vows to each other. On the other hand at most traditional Orthodox weddings we hear nothing at all from the bride and from the groom all we hear is the Hebrew translation of the phrase, “You are betrothed to me with this ring according to the laws of Moshe and Israel.” No vows. No unscripted comments.

I try to modify this when I am mesader kiddushin. At the weddings that I am honored to officiate at I encourage the bride and groom to add something personal to their wedding. Usually just before the conclusion of the Chuppah ceremony –- right before the husband puts his foot down for the very last time in his life -- I invite the bride and groom to share words of blessing and love. Sometimes the bride and groom are not into this at all and they shy away from it, but other times they embrace it and offer very meaningful and inspirational words. When the bride and groom embrace this concept it is a beautiful thing to see it and I recommend that folks incorporate this into their traditional wedding ceremony.

There is just one catch. We should not refer to this additional part of the ceremony as a wedding vow. We should call it “blessings” or “inspirational words of romance” or “words from the heart” but whatever we do we should not call it “vows.”

In our tradition vows are a bad thing that we should stay away from.

The most famous and well attended of all of our prayer services is the Kol Nidrei service. The origin of this service is an enigmatic statement found in Nedarim, 23b that says: “Whoever desires that their vows during the year should not be binding should stand up on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and declare, ‘any vow that I make throughout the year is null and void.’” Although, this is slightly different than our Kol Nidrei prayer it is the closest thing we have to that prayer service and it is the likely origin of the Kol Nidrei service. (See Shitah Mekubetzet and Tosafot Yeshanim, ad. loc.)

It is puzzling that the holiest prayer service of the year focuses us on the rather esoteric topic of annulling our vows.

A vow in Hebrew is called a neder.

The word neder appears in this week’s portion when we are told on three occasions that our voluntary offerings must only be offered in the area of the Temple and not wherever we desire (12:11, 17, 26).

We call a voluntary offering a neder because it comes as the result of a vow that we make. Even though the Torah allows us make these voluntary offerings and to make a neder – a vow—in service of Hashem, it is still generally speaking not a good thing.

Personally speaking I feel oversaturated with vows. The reason is because as part of our Daf Yomi group we have been studying Tractate Nedarim for the last 83 days. And in just one week—beli neder--we will complete the tractate.

Tractate Nedarim teaches us what makes an utterance into a binding vow. And it also spends considerable time discussing how one can cancel a vow that was made.

The most basic way to annul a vow is to go to a Bet Din and ask the court to annul the vow. This is a process called hatarat nedarim (annulment of vows).

One should not make a vow. The Talmud is very clear about this.

The Talmud states: “Kol hanoder af al pi she-hu mekaimo nikrah choteh, one who vows – even if one keeps this vow—is called a sinner” (Nedarim, 77b). The verse states, “Tov mi-she lo tidor, mi she-tidor ve-lo tishalem, it is better not to vow than to vow and not pay [the vow]” (Kohelet 5:4). And the Talmud continues, “Ve-tov mi-zeh umi-zeh she-eino noder kol ikar, And better than both of those options, is to not vow at all” (Nedarim, 9a).

There are a number of suggestions as to why it is so problematic to make a vow. The Ran suggests that the main problem with making a vow is that when one makes a vow they open the possibility –perhaps even the likelihood—that they will not fulfill their vow and thus they will violate their promise. Think about all those New Year’s resolutions and how many times we go back on our promises. Better to speak with our actions and just do what we want to do than to make grandiose promises that we end up breaking!

Another suggestion as to why it is so bad to vow is based upon Nedarim 22a, which states that when one makes a vow the Heavenly Court opens up his ledger and investigates all of his actions. Ran explains that the one who vows is demonstrating spiritual arrogance and declaring that he is so confident in his ways. This arrogance makes him a target in heaven and causes his deeds to be more intensely scrutinized.

A third suggestion is based upon a statement of R. Nasson (Nedarim, 59a). R. Nosson says that one who vows is similar to one who builds a bamma. A bamma is a private altar that was set up outside the Temple to make private sacrifices. Once the Temple was built it was forbidden to do this as all offerings could only be made in the Temple. And R. Nosson continues, ve-hamekaymo ke-eilu makriv alav korban, and if one fulfills his vow, it is as though he made an offering on this altar.”

According to this approach, the problem with making a vow is not that one might not fulfill his promise but just the opposite, that one might indeed fulfill his promise. The Torah gave us a set of laws and prohibitions and a vower is formally prohibiting something upon himself not listed in the Torah. If the Torah would have wanted something to be prohibited, then it would have prohibited it on its own. To make it a personal prohibition is to turn something that is normally permitted into an aveirah or a mitzvah and that is not something we should generally be doing. To make a private, informal commitment to one’s seld is permitted and even praiseworthy, but to turn it into a formal vow is problematic.

I say generally because once in a while there is a good reason to vow. If the activity we are trying to break is so bad and is consuming us then we sometimes need to resort to a vow to break our cycle of mistakes. For example, I have one friend who is a strictly religious Jew who made a vow 16 years ago to quit smoking for 15 years. This man felt that the only way he could stop smoking was to turn it into an actual additional prohibition, so he made the neder. That vow worked for him and he never smoked again.

Although I have loved studying this tractate it took me a while to understand how to connect to it. The tractate is not so easy to relate to because for most of us this is now how we operate religiously today. We generally speaking don’t speak in a language of vows.

And yet there are powerful lessons in tractate Nedarim for all of us to relate to, especially today as we celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul.

The principle behind annulling vows is really the core principle of the High Holidays.

As part of our spiritual preparation for Rosh Hashanah it is a custom to partake in another esoteric ritual. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah we perform the ceremony of, hatarat nedarim. This ceremony consists of us standing before a Beit Din and asking for our vows to be annulled. In turn, the Beit Din responds by annulling our vows.

Again, we wonder, why is this the ritual that we perform on the eve of Rosh Hashanah? How does the annulment of vows have anything do with the High Holidays?

Actually, the process of the annulment of vows really symbolizes what the month of Elul and the High Holidays are all about.

When we annul a vow we are not just getting rid of a vow we are actually retroactively uprooting the vow as though it never existed. It is as though we never uttered the statement to begin with!

The Talmud gives an example of this. Let’s say one makes a vow that their cow should be an offering to Hashem in the Temple. Then the person goes and disregards the vow and slaughters the cow in their own backyard as a private meal for their own purposes. Normally the slaughter of a sacred animal outside of the Temple grounds is a severe sin worthy of the divine punishment known as karet.

But in this case there is a loophole. Even after the animal has been slaughtered one is permitted to annul the vow that designated the animal as an offering in the first place. By annulling the vow one is saying that there never was a vow that sanctified this animal as an offering and thus the animal was never actually sanctified and thus one is thereby released from their sin.

In other words by annulling a vow we have the opportunity to remove the action entirely from the world!

This is actually one of the underlying principles of repentance (teshuvah) and an inspirational idea regarding the month of Elul.

Many of us have sinned in our relationship with God. We have strayed from His commandments and veered from Her teachings. We feel incredibly guilty. We feel that there is no place for us in a shul and that it would be hypocritical for us to walk into synagogue on the High Holidays and pour out our hearts in prayer.

But there is an uplifting promise to the month of Elul. Elul gives us a chance to start over. Elul offers us an opportunity to uproot our mistakes and completely remove them from the world – as though they never even existed to begin with.

This is the power of Elul.

Teshuvah is so powerful it is as though we never sinned to begin with.

Rambam writes (Laws of Teshuva, 7:4)

“A Baal-Teshuvah should not consider himself distant from the level of the righteous because of the sins and transgressions that he committed. This is not true. He is beloved and desirable before the Creator as if he never sinned.”

This teaching of Rambam needs to be understood.

Sometimes I remember my mistakes from decades ago. I just can’t get them out of my mind. I say to myself why did I do something so dumb. This past week I visited a sleep-away summer camp. This brought back to my mind all the really dumb things that I once did in camp. Like the time, I…. Well, we will just leave that one to your imagination! Sure I was a young kid, but I still wish I hadn’t done them. The power of guilt is sometimes a good thing, but if guilt is holding us back from progressing in the world, then it is a problem and we need to be able to move on and move forward with our lives.

Obviously sometimes a sinner has sinned and those terrible things can’t be undone. But the power of teshuvah teaches us that if we committed a sin against God then vis a vis our relationship with God, we have a chance to reconnect and it is as though it has never happened. The slate is clean. The sin has been eviscerated entirely!

The renunciation of our vows is an opportunity to take an action to cleanse our selves of the foolish mistakes we have made and feel incredibly bad about!

This year lets all
a) Stay away from foolish vows and harmful sins.
b) Let’s take the hatarat nedarim process and kol nidrei process seriously by imagining it as an opportunity to turn back the clock and start with a fresh slate.
c) Understand hatarat nedarim as a metaphor for the opportunity that the month of Elul offers us: our mistakes don’t have to be with us forever. We can wipe them off the face of the earth. We can move forward with our lives. This Elul the concept of vows shows us how we can embrace Hashem!

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