Vows make a difference, as tradition teachesMattot, Numbers 30:2–32:42

Vows make a difference, as tradition teachesMattot, Numbers 30:2–32:42

“If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation upon himself he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.”
— Numbers 30:2

“If a woman makes a vow to the Lord or assumes an obligation while still in her father’s house. …”
— Numbers 30:3

So begins parashat Mattot. Two things stand clearly obvious: First, women, at the time of the writing of Torah, were acquiescent to men. Second, the making of vows to God was serious business.
On this first issue, Etz Hayyim (p. 941) comments, “These rules, reflecting an age when women were subordinated to a father or husband, have been superseded by developments in the modern world. Already by the time of the Talmud, the sages limited the applicability of this law by restricting its time (the year between ages 11 and 12) and the circumstances.”
On the second issue — the importance of vows — we are all familiar with its most prescient representation in our liturgy. Indeed, few refer to Erev Yom Kippur; we know it as Kol Nidre (All Vows). And in today’s Jewish world, all of us acknowledge that our declared obligation to God must be fulfilled.
Words, it is taught, are merely symbols. Those symbols take on meaning when we humans agree that a particular word refers to a particular thing. We all agree what a window or a door is.
Suppose that we agree that a “door” is in fact a “window” and vice versa. All is well in this newly defined world until we choose to walk out the “door.” We would then be struck by what Edmund Burke called “the recalcitrance of the universe,” for by stepping out the “door” we would surely land on the ground below the object formerly known as a window.
This academic exercise confirms that words do carry actual meaning. Thus, words have power and the control of words — or more specifically, control of the definition of words — creates political and physical power.
Our vows — our words — are actions that we declare. Whether to God or our fellow human being, we are responsible for the words we declare. The power of words is evident in the opening words of Torah, wherein God creates a world solely with words.
As God created using only words, so do we humans create using words. Being only betzelem d’mut — in the image of God (and thus, incapable of the full breadth and depth of God’s power), we must take care that we use those words for good.
We use words to define both things and people. Through words, we denigrate or elevate the people around us. Through good and evil words — lashon hatov ulashon harav — we create both war and peace, despair and joy, loneliness and love.
The choice is ours. The words of Kol Nidre address only our relationship with God. We control our actions toward our fellow human beings.
May the One who established peace in the heavens, grant peace to us, to all Israel and to all humanity.
Shabbat Shalom.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)