Vows are a very significant concept in Judaism. Maimonides, who wrote the authoritative guide to Jewish law, devoted an entire book, of fourteen, to vows. However, I find nowadays that vows just don’t have the same meaning for us anymore.
I recall my rabbi telling me that there was a time when he was growing up that ‘a man’s word was his bond’. He said that, in his experience, the person who changed that globally was Adolf Hitler. People laugh at Chamberlain’s ‘peace for our time’ statement. But it’s easy to mock in hindsight. He said that he ‘believed’ the agreement would provide peace. Clearly, he was not at all certain, just hoping to avoid a war in which tens of millions would die. In my mind, that was very reasonable. Most importantly, however, I believe that we are anachronistic in our judgment. Chamberlain lived at a time when agreements actually meant something. When a person made a commitment, they almost invariably stuck to it. He had no reason to believe that Hitler was anything other than a man of his word. Less than a year later, he – and the entire world – knew differently. But in 1938, it was a very reasonable supposition.
Hitler made it a habit of breaking agreements – most notably the Munich agreement and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Stalin – who trusted Hitler also. Hitler changed our world such that commitments mean so much less to us nowadays. And I say this from two perspectives.
Firstly, we no longer have the trust that used to exist in business. Gazumping, for example, commonplace and considered ‘normal’ nowadays, would have been unimaginable prior to World War 2. People would not go back on a handshake. The value of commitment was much more important than some extra cash. Today, you need the best lawyers to produce the highest quality contracts. And whilst business has adapted, it is a shame that we have lost this sense of trust between people.
But there is another sad result of this loss of trust – and that is, to a great extent, we have lost trust in ourselves also. And in doing so, we have lost an incredible and powerful means for our own growth and development. If I tell someone that I will be somewhere at a certain time, I do all that I can to be sure I am there. And if I’m late – even by a minute or two, I will be in touch and apologise. Or at least apologise afterwards. For me, if I say something, I am absolutely committed to doing it. It’s not empty words. Because that’s what Torah points me to in terms of my words meaning something to me. I find, however, that so often when people make commitments, they think more in terms of, ‘I’ll hopefully do it as long as it remains convenient’. Even when I marry couples nowadays, I usually feel that this is no longer ‘till death us do part’, but ‘till divorce us do part’. I just don’t see the same level of commitment.
To Torah, vows/commitments are sacred. Standing by what we say and seeing it through makes us deeper and more authentic people. It not only allows others to build trust in us, but also allows ourselves to make commitments with the confidence that we can see them through. To me, making and keeping vows makes us spiritually elevated human beings, standing on solid ground, not fluff, that blows somewhere new with every gust of wind.
Parsha in a Nutshell
Mattos includes the laws of making and annulling vows and the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad for their portion of land to be east of the Jordan River. Maasei includes the complete list of journeys in the desert and God’s instructions to divide the land by a national lottery system. God establishes the borders of the land of Israel. New leadership is appointed. The laws are set forth regarding manslaughter and murder.