Promises, Pledges, Oaths
Thoughts on Parashat Ki Tetzei
When you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing. (Deut 23:22-23)
We can distinguish three kinds of promises that we make: those we give ourselves, those we give to other people and those that we give to God Himself. First-type promises are part of our internal life and fulfill psychological functions, e.g. they are to motivate us to achieve a given goal, or, for example, change those of our behaviors that we considered harmful to us or to others. As such, they do not have an ethical dimension, which is essentially the core of the promises made to other people. However, the heart of the promises made to God, as in the case of the promises made to oneself, is not in their ethical dimension either. The latter have a primarily religious dimension, and thus breaking the promise to the Supreme is rather not an ethical offense, but a religious one.
Our rabbis devoted a lot of attention to this subject and the entire tractate of the Talmud, Nedarim, is devoted to the subject of vows. The rabbis are divided on whether the taking of vows and oaths is desirable; some of them see no harm in the practice, others frown on it even when the promise is in a good cause, a promise to give to charity for example. However, the general tendency is to frown in principle on vow-taking but to leave room for a personal decision as to whether the circumstances demand it.
The subject of promises is all the more important at the moment, since the High Holidays are approaching, during which vows and oaths are one of the leading themes, with the main representation in Kol Nidrei, a declaration which we recite on erev Yom Kippur.
When Kol Nidrei was first composed, its purpose was to nullify vows that had been made and violated during the previous year. While the halakha requires that such vows be specified and can be nullified only if the court is satisfied that they were undertaken under some misapprehension, Kol Nidrei initially referred to vows that have been forgotten and for which the standard remedy is impossible. This raised halachic objections of many rabbis. Thus, an important alteration in the wording of the “Kol Nidre” was made by Rashi’s son-in-law, Meir ben Samuel (early 12th century), who changed the original phrase “from the last Day of Atonement until this one” to “from this Day of Atonement until the next.” Thus the dispensation of the “Kol Nidre” was not as formerly a posteriori and concerned with unfulfilled obligations of the past year, but a priori and having reference to vows which one might not be able to fulfil or might forget to observe during the ensuing year. Thus, by reciting the words of the Kol Nidre prayer, we do not annul the vows that we have already made, but the ones we will make next year.
All of this suggests to us that we should be careful in making promises/oaths every day, to God, to others, and to ourselves alike. If someone asks us for something and we know that we want to do it, the best we can do is to focus immediately on actions that would bring a given situation to life, even if it’s going to be a gradual process. If we make promises, we usually, automatically, postpone our actions in time and, what is important, we silently assume that we are able to keep them. This feeling does not have to be “a momentary illusion”. Often, it seems to us to be the result of cold, rational calculation, our well-established and repeatedly proven beliefs about what lies within our capabilities. However, when promising or swearing something to someone we often forget that we are not the sole masters of our own destiny. We often forget about the possibility of random events, which may sometimes completely thwart our plans. Then we realize how much reality surpasses us. Non-believers will see in this rather only bad luck, “bad omen” or just the enormity and complexity of the world that surrounds us. Believers are able to hear a message from the Eternal in it. In cases of serious failures caused by random accidents, one can actually see a Judgment Day in it, brought to us by God. How we will handle a given failure or a difficult trial moment will depend on how close we were to God Himself, as well as, what follows it – who we were and who we currently are to other people. God will help us then and will strengthen us in a crisis situation, and in this sense His judgment will be “gentle” to us, while the people who surround us will support us and help us then, because they will remember our goodness and all the good things they have experienced from us. These Judgment Days happen in our lives periodically and there is no escape from them. Their true meaning is usually revealed to us after some time, and then we often see transformational experiences in them. May all our future Judgment Days, even those painful ones, be ultimately positive for us and may they transform us into better people.