ANNUL YOUR VOWS
July 14, 2014
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #934, Mattos, Parsha Thought, Yom Kippur

THE POWER OF SPEECH

The Torah places great emphasis on the words of our mouths. This manifests itself in many ways. Our mouths are to be used to speak and teach words of Torah as we say in the Shma “and you shall speak of them.” The manner of speech is also important. We are not to speak ill of others. We are not to curse. A Kohen is obligated to bless the Jewish people with the three priestly blessings. But nowhere is the extraordinary power of speech more pronounced than in the subject of vows, the subject of the beginning of this week’s parsha—Matos.

The parsha begins:

“Moses spoke to the children of Israel’s tribal heads, saying: ‘This is what G-d has commanded: When a person makes a vow to G-d or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he may not violate his word; he must act in accordance with whatever he uttered.’”

In other words, if a person makes an oath that he will not eat an apple, he is duty bound to abide by that oath. For that person, to eat an apple is equivalent to eating a piece of pork. We see from this that the Torah has conferred upon us the power to prohibit to ourselves things that the Torah expressly permits. In addition, our self-prohibition carries the same weight as those prohibitions that the Torah imposes.

ANNULMENT

There is, however, an important caveat. Whereas a piece of pork can never be permitted (unless, of course, it is a matter of life and death) there is a way for one to nullify his oath.

The Talmud, in transmitting an oral tradition handed to Moses at Sinai and hinted at in the Biblical text, states that a person has a way to renounce and annul that oath. One may present the matter of the oath to a panel of three rabbis. If they elicit a statement from the oath taker that had he or she known the repercussions of the vow, he or she would not have made it in the first place, the rabbis have the power to release the person from the vow.

This power of annulment is the only example in Jewish law where rabbis have any power to change Torah law. But in truth, they are not changing the law; they are merely exercising their G-d given license to annul the vow.

Historically, the Sadducees, a group of heretics who rejected the practices and beliefs of Judaism based on the Oral Torah, did not accept that a panel of rabbis has this power and ability.

KOL NIDREI AND REJECTING HERESY

The importance of renouncing vows is underscored in our Kol Nidrei prayer, which we recite at the onset of our holiest day, Yom Kippur. This prayer incorporates a legal procedure wherein we annul our vows, either past or future (depending on two different customs).

Much has been written about the reason this legal declaration is made on the holiest day of the year. Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to begin our worship service with the theme of T’shuva (repentance or return)?

Rabbi Yosef Rosen of Dvinsk (known as the Rogatchover Gaon, one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of the 20th century) offers a novel insight about this choice. He demonstrates that whenever the heretical Sadducees rejected a Jewish ritual based on the Oral Torah, faithful Jews would perform the ritual publically, with much fanfare. Moreover, the “controversial” ceremony usually required the repetition of certain key phrases three times in order to defiantly declare fidelity to Torah in its entirety—Oral as well as Written.

Thus on Judaism’s holiest day we begin by declaring our total and uncompromising commitment to G-d by embracing His Torah in its entirety.

THE NEGATIVE SIDE OF COMPROMISE

To further clarify the Rogatchover’s approach:

One of the challenges in our lives is the struggle between our selfish desires and the dictates of the Torah. There are three possible outcomes: Either we succumb to our selfish interests or we surrender to the Torah’s dictates or we try to find a compromise between these two demands. While it would seem that compromise is better than total surrender to the other side, compromise can often create worse problems than an outright capitulation to the wrong side. And this, we might suggest, is the tie-in with Yom Kippur.

When one finds a happy medium between what G-d wants and what one’s Animal Soul desires, one may feel satisfied and complacent. Their conscience no longer bothers them because, in their minds, they followed G-d’s Will, at least to some extent. The compromisers will very likely think to themselves that they are now able to have their proverbial cake and eat it too.

During all the other days of the year such a compromise is not necessarily the lowest point to which one can degenerate spiritually. It could be far worse if a person totally rejects following the Torah’s dictates. On Yom Kippur, however, compromise and smugness can prove to be a great impediment. T’shuva constitutes the very essence of Yom Kippur and its prayers. For us to truly regret our past imperfections and resolve to change we must recognize where we have failed. Those people who have chosen to transgress rather than compromise with the Torah’s dictates cannot fool themselves into thinking that they are not in need of drastic change. Those who’ve made a compromise, by contrast, might very well delude themselves into thinking that while they were not perfect (and who is?) they were, more or less, in good spiritual shape.

Thus, when Yom Kippur begins, we annul our vows. It is a procedure based on the Oral Torah. In this way, we affirm our belief in and commitment to the complete Torah: both Written and Oral Torahs. We start the Day of Atonement on the right foot; we are not going to delude ourselves. Instead, we are good and ready for a brutally honest self-evaluation.

WHY ANNULLING VOWS?

This explanation, based on the thesis of the Rogatchover Gaon does not explain why this particular ceremony is used to commence the process of T’shuva on Yom Kippur. If the goal was to initiate Yom Kippur with a ceremony based on the Oral Torah many other such examples could have been used. Why pick annulling vows over all other examples?

The answer lies in understanding the dynamic of annulling a vow. It is based on an understanding of a person’s mistaken notion about his or her own choices in life and what is his or her true potential.

In the moment when people make vows to refrain from a certain activity, they are sure that that prohibition is in their best interests. Later on, when they appear before the rabbinic tribunal, they realize that, in fact, it was not in their best interest and had they known the consequences of their vow they would never have made it.

Frequently, we assume that the actions we take are truly consistent with our best interests and they reflect our true desires. The process of T’shuva, particularly on Yom Kippur, is similar to the annulment process. It makes us realize that what we thought was what we wanted was not truly our real desire. Suppose a child wants to drink something harmful. The parent, or in some cases that same child when mature, will realize that the child’s immediate desire was not in his or her true best interest.

Yom Kippur is the day of T’shuva. It is the day of our maturity; we begin to recognize who we really are and identify our true interests and desires.

This thought ties in to the abovementioned rejection of compromise in our observance of Torah and its Mitzvos. When we realize that our true desire is to be close to G-d by observing His commandments, we free ourselves from the compulsion to compromise. The wish to compromise is often a result of not being in touch with our true desire. Being out of touch with that reality, we erroneously think we cannot accept the totality of Torah because it conflicts with our interests.

GEULA: THE ANNULMENT OF GALUS VOWS

Annulment of vows is a rejection of the themes of compromise and a delusional sense of self. The same two erroneous impulses also can be applied to the differences that exist between Galus and Geula.

In Galus we are pulled in both directions but we tend to lean toward our selfish-interests, so compromise is the best solution we think we can reach. This clearly reveals our penchant to compromise in spiritual matters generally. That settling for less is a direct consequence of a Galus inferiority complex and low spiritual self-esteem. We don’t believe that we really want to go all the way and follow the Torah without compromise. We don’t give ourselves enough credit to understand that we are fully able to go all the way.

One of the consequences of being self-delusional is that we don’t think we have the strength to be uncompromisingly faithful, so we make vows and impose unnecessary prohibitions on ourselves. In an ideal world there is no need for these vows. As the Talmud puts it: “That which the Torah prohibits should suffice for you.” The same inferiority complex and lack of self-respect that keeps a person from shooting for perfection is what motivates him to make unnecessary vows.

Geula is when all of our needless vows, born from a lack of appreciation for who we are and the resources we possess, will be annulled. We will not need to use vows as crutches to support us in the struggle with our egos and self-centered nature. We will also lose any desire we may have to perform the Mitzvos in a compromised fashion. Maimonides explains that Moshiach’s objective will be to make Torah observance complete. We will comprehend our real desire and powerful potential. We will embrace Torah in its entirety.

 

 

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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