Telephone Torah Study: The Power of Vows and Oaths
This week’s Torah portion, Matot (Num. 30:2-32:42), centers on the Torah’s belief in the incredible power of vows and oaths.
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I have always been amazed by the power of Kol Nidrei, the prayer that introduces the evening service on Yom Kippur. Each year, I marvel at the sheer number of people who put aside all other commitments in order to be in synagogue, to be present to hear these ancient words. What brings us in the doors? Is it the haunting melody? Is it the threefold repetition of the prayer that moves us toward an emotional crescendo?
Or is it the message of this prayer, which promises to absolve us of our responsibility for any vows that we may make in the coming year? When we make vows, we put into speech our deepest fears and most profound hopes. Like Hannah who vows to dedicate her son to the sanctuary if God grants her a son (I Samuel 1), many of us make various commitments to do certain things or give up certain things that we cherish, in order to avert danger or bring about a hoped-for future.
Yet some vows are rash, regrettable, or unrealizable; some are made under duress. Kol Nidrei reminds us that we have the choice to keep or annul our vows, thus affirming our most basic rights to self-expression and self-determination. This is part of what gives both the prayer and its recitation its profound power.
Parashat Matot enumerates various regulations concerning the status of women’s vows (30:3-17). It also describes the circumstances under which a woman’s vow may be annulled. We read that if her father or husband hears the vow on the day that she makes it, the vow can be nullified. The woman’s personal status–whether she is a child, married, or divorced–will determine the status and power of the vow and whether she may fulfill it. Although she possesses the ability to make a vow, she may have to abandon her oaths and vows if the male authority figure in her life hears them. Given that fact, what are her options? She could take her chances with vowing and being heard.
Moses told the heads of the Israelite tribes God’s commands about nedarim (commitments commonly translated, or perhaps mistranslated, as “vows”). If a man made a vow to God, he was to carry out all that he promised. If a girl living in her father’s household made a vow to God or assumed an obligation, and her father learned of it and did not object, her vow would stand. But if her father objected on the day that he learned of it, her vow would not stand, and God would forgive her. If she married while her vow was still in force, and her husband learned of it and did not object on the day that he found out, her vow would stand. But if her husband objected on the day that he learned of it, her vow would not stand, and God would forgive her. The vow of a widow or divorced woman was binding. If a married woman made a vow and her husband learned of it and did not object, then her vow would stand. But if her husband objected on the day that he learned of it, her vow would not stand, and God would forgive her. If her husband annulled one of her vows after the day that he learned of it, he would bear her guilt.
God directed Moses to attack the Midianites, after which he would die. At Moses’ direction, a thousand men from each tribe, with Phinehas son of Eleazar serving as priest on the campaign with the sacred utensils and trumpets, attacked Midian and slew every man, including five kings of Midian and the prophet Balaam. The Israelites burned the Midianite towns, took the Midianite women and children captive, seized all their beasts and wealth as booty, and brought the captives and spoil to Moses, Eleazar, and the Israelite community at the steppes of Moab.
Moses became angry with the army’s commanders for sparing the women, as they were the ones who, at Balaam’s bidding, had induced the Israelites to trespass against God in the sin of Peor. Moses then told the Israelites to kill every boy and every woman who had had sexual relations, but to spare the virgin girls. Moses directed the troops to stay outside the camp for 7 days after that, directed every one of them who had touched a corpse to cleanse himself on the third and seventh days, and directed them to cleanse everything made of cloth, hide, or wood. Eleazar told the troops to take any article that could withstand fire — gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, and lead — and pass them through fire to clean them, and to cleanse everything with water of lustration. Eleazar directed that on the seventh day they should wash their clothes and be clean, and thereafter be free to enter the camp.
God told Moses to work with Eleazar and the family heads to inventory and divide the booty equally between the combatants and the rest of the community. God told them to exact a levy for God of one item in 500 of the warriors’ captive persons and animals to be given to Eleazar, and one in every 50 of the other Israelites’ captive persons and animals to be given to the Levites. The total booty came to 675,000 sheep, 72,000 head of cattle, 61,000 donkeys, and 32,000 virgin women, which Moses and Eleazar divided as God had commanded.
The Israelites’ half of the booty came to 337,500 sheep, 36,000 head of cattle, 30,500 donkeys, and 16,000 virgin women, which Moses and Eleazar divided as God had commanded. The commanders of the troops told Moses that they had checked the warriors, and not one was missing, so they brought as an offering to God the gold that they came upon — armlets, bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and pendants — to make expiation for their persons before God. Moses and Eleazar accepted from them 16,750 shekels of gold, but the warriors in the ranks kept their booty for themselves.
The Reubenites and the Gadites, who owned much cattle, noted that the lands of Jazer and Gilead on the east side of the Jordan River suited cattle, and they approached Moses, Eleazar, and the chieftains and asked that those lands be given to them as a holding. Moses asked them if the rest of the Israelites were to go to war while they stayed on the east bank, and would that not undermine the enthusiasm of the rest of the Israelites for crossing into the Promised Land. Moses likened their position to that of the scouts who surveyed the land and then turned the minds of the Israelites against invading, thus incensing God and causing God to swear that none of the adult Israelites (except Caleb and Joshua) would see the land. They replied that they would build their sheepfolds and towns east of the Jordan and leave their children there, but then serve as shock-troops in the van of the Israelites until the land was conquered and not seek a share of the land west of the Jordan.
Moses then said that if they would do this, and every shock-fighter among them crossed the Jordan, then they would be clear before God and Israel, and this land would be their holding. But Moses continued, if they did not do as they promised, they would have sinned against God. Moses instructed Eleazar, Joshua, and the family heads of the Israelite tribes to carry out the agreement. So Moses assigned the Gadites, the Reubenites, and half the tribe of Manasseh lands on the east side of the Jordan. The Gadites and Reubenites built cities on the east side of Jordan, and some leaders of Manasseh conquered cities on the east of the Jordan so half the tribe of Manasseh could settle there.
Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite’s tribes, saying: This is what Adonai has commanded: If a householder makes a vow to Adonai or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips. (Num. 30:2-3)