This week's first Torah portion begins by introducing us to the myriad laws associated with the formulation of nedarim, or obligatory vows.
This week's first Torah portion begins by introducing us to the myriad laws associated with the formulation of nedarim, or obligatory vows. Whenever a person makes a neder (singular for nedarim), pronouncing his or her willingness to perform a certain act or refrain from a designated behavior, that person becomes obligated by Torah law to obey the injunction which has been created. Jewish law (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De'ah 203) further dictates that even when one performs a meritorious minhag (custom) three or more times in a row, or one simply expresses a willingness to perform a mitzvah, such as "I will learn Torah for an hour tonight," one is similarly obligated by Torah law to perform that act. Additionally, although Jewish law generally advocates that we refrain from making vows that will obligate us in additional actions or restrictions above and beyond those already dictated by the Torah, we are still encouraged to vow to perform a given mitzvah in the Torah or to refrain from actions that might lead to transgressions.
Several questions come to mind when thinking about the powerful tool of vows and the opinions expressed by the sages regarding them. First of all, what are the mechanics by which a vow takes effect? Why does one become any more obligated by expressing his desire through the medium of speech than one does by thinking that same desire? Second, practically speaking, why should making a vow help someone perform a mitzvah that he is anyway already obligated to perform? Why can't that person simply decide to do the mitzvah and carry it out without adding a verbal component? Third, our sages tell us that we were all sworn by Hashem at Mt. Sinai to perform His mitzvot. How does our adding on a vow make the commitment which we forged with the words "we will do and we will listen" any stronger?
One final question: Our sages tell us (Talmud Tractate Shabbat 32b) that because of a person's sins in the arena of unfulfilled vows, Hashem takes away his wife and children. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, one of the outstanding figures in Jewish thought of this century, clarifies that although one's wife and children certainly can only be punished for their own sins, Hashem will not take them away unless everyone who will be affected by their death deserves to have them removed from himself because of his own sins. The sages are telling us that, from the perspective of the person who sinned through unfulfilled vows, he deserves to have his wife and children taken from him. Still, it remains unclear how this punishment fits the crime. What does losing one's wife and children have to do with making a vow and not keeping it?
The Maharal, a great Torah scholar and thinker of the 16th century, explains the tremendous power of vows and speech in general by elucidating the verse: "Life and death are in the power of the tongue" (Proverbs 18:21). Hashem created Man with certain strengths and potentials in the form of a neshamah (soul). Hashem placed these powers in Man, waiting to be used, so that Man could serve his Creator by bringing these abilities into concrete reality, and thereby making himself deserving of Hashem's eternal closeness. This is the true service of Hashem, wherein one brings his vast potential into reality. In essence, we are born with the ability - in the form of a soul - to bring the greatest of good into this world by serving Hashem and drawing His presence onto this earth through our physical actions. On the other hand, by heeding our yetzer hara (evil inclination), we also have the devastating power to bring the greatest of evils into this world by going against Hashem's will, thereby obscuring His presence in this world.
The place where this dichotomy is most greatly exemplified and brought into actuality is the tongue. Through the tongue, the thoughts in one's mind are most quickly brought into physical reality. Actions are far less readily expressed than words, a reality evident to anybody who has ever found himself able to refrain from physically assaulting another person yet unable to withhold from lashing out with a harmful word. It is through the tongue that ethereal ideas are first brought into reality, and it is most notably through the tongue that we begin our service (or disservice) of Hashem. Speech initiates the bringing of one's spiritual potential into reality. Even physically, it is speech that seems to combine the spiritual component of a person with his physical component, as the spiritual breath of Man is shaped by the physical components of his teeth, lips, and tongue.
For this reason, we are obligated to enunciate our prayers and confessions to Hashem. It is not enough to intellectually feel that one loves G-d and regrets one's sins; one must bring those feelings into a binding physical reality. Speech is the gateway between the thoughts of the mind and the physical actions of the body. Through speech one begins the trek of bringing good thoughts into the reality of action, fulfilling one's purpose in creation.
It is for this reason that making a vow is so effective in binding a person into doing the right thing. Although we are enjoined not to make vows to obligate ourselves in new things, by making a vow to perform a mitzvah in which one is already enjoined, one strengthens his commitment by already partially bringing the required action into reality. All that remains is the purely physical act. Similarly, for this reason Hashem compelled us to swear by Mt. Sinai that we would perform His commandments; making that verbal commitment took us one step closer to bringing those mitzvot physically to bear.
Rabbi Dessler further explains that this is the great danger inherent in the delay or failure of performing a vow. By making a vow, one has brought a great spiritual light into the physical world, and by failing to transfer that light into practice one obscures this great potential. Not only has he failed in his Divine purpose, but he has run counterproductively against that purpose. Why, from his perspective, does he deserve to lose his wife and children? Just as he has failed to complete the spiritual journey into an eternal world by bringing his speech into a physical action, so too his attempt to bring his own reality into the world of eternity by propagating his being has also been thwarted. Similarly, it is fitting that his wife, who guides him into the world of spirituality, be taken from him. In effect, says Rabbi Dessler, one has used the vow simply to remove his guilt, falling short of carrying it to its ultimate purpose. How often have we agreed to do something simply to remove a feeling of guilt, only to fail when the time came to carry out our commitment? One can only exclaim that life and death truly are controlled by our powerful tongues.
Along these lines, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great 19th century leader of German Jewry, explains why the mitzvot of vows are identified by the Torah as being given specifically to rashei hamatot, the heads of the tribes (Numbers 30:2). Since each tribe has a specific goal to fulfill within the framework of the nation, each tribe must individually bring their unique talents and potentials into physical reality in their own special ways. To represent this reality - that each tribe has a different potential to bring into Hashem's service, and for that matter, so does every single individual within each tribe - the command to fulfill one's vows was given specifically through the heads of the tribes.
In essence, it is through the power of speech that Man most notably becomes a "partner of Hashem" in creation. Although G-d created the potential inside of us, it is our responsibility to bring that potential into reality, most noticeably through the workings of our tongue. In fact, it is through our tongues that we set and determine the world's reality around us. This is most clearly demonstrated by Hashem's first command to Adam in the Garden of Eden, in which Adam was told to give names to all of Hashem's animals. As our sages explain, by calling them certain names, Adam determined which purposes they would serve in the world. Through his power of speech, Adam determined which strengths of each animal could best be brought into reality, which animal was best suited for plowing and which animal was most fitting for carrying.
One need not look far in the words of our sages to see how powerful speech is in its ability to determine reality. Firstly, our sages say that one who sins with lashon hara (slander) increases his sins at the same level as murder, sexual immorality, and idol worship combined (Talmud Tractate Erchin 15b). For even if another person has lied or stolen, he is not defined as a "liar" or "thief" until one actually calls him such. Through the tongue one determines the other person's being, restricting him to one's deadly words. Instead of bringing the goodness of others into reality, one has reversed the trend of the purpose in creation and has evoked only that which is evil.
Similarly, our sages say that when one calls someone by a degrading name with the intent of embarrassing him, one descends into the pits of Gehinom (purgatory) and does not ascend from its dark clutches (Tractate Baba Metzia 58b). Finally, the sages say that one who is accustomed to lying cannot reside in the place of Hashem's presence (Tractate Sotah 42a). One who has used this powerful component of creation for the spreading of the opposite of Hashem's truth has no place in the presence of G-d.
On the other hand, what a tremendous opportunity exists in the proper usage of our mouths. We have the ability to join Hashem in the veritable creation of the world with this powerful physical component! By properly manipulating the small components of our mouths, we can bring the spirituality deep inside us into the shining light of reality. By referring to someone in a positive fashion, by delivering a compliment to someone around us, and by focusing on others' good points we can further bring their goodness into reality and designate them as true servants of their Creator. By praying to Hashem and vocally renouncing our sins, we can bring into reality our desire to reconnect to our beloved King and Creator. By speaking words of Torah we can physically bring G-d's will further into the physical world. Be alert, King Solomon tells us, for life and death truly are in the power of the tongue. It is up to us to choose life.
Ranon Cortell, who hails from Atlanta, is studying at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington and the University of Maryland.
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