29/30 July: Matot-Masei : Shabbat comes in 8:39 pm, ends 9:49 pm
Parashat Matot-Masei – Ḥannah’s Son and Yiftaḥ’s Daughter
This week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei, opens with laws about vows. If a man makes a vow, says the Torah, he must stick to it; if a woman makes a vow, the portion tells us that there are various situations in which her father or husband might be able to annul it (because, in the biblical era, women were considered the property of men). When we revisit this subject in Sefer D’varim (the Book of Deuteronomy), a note will be added that there is nothing wrong with refraining from ever saying a vow. When this topic is continued in the classical rabbinic literature in Masekhet Nedarim, an entire tractate dedicated to the laws of vows, a large portion of the tractate is dedicated to how to annul someone’s vow. And in the midst of that tractate is a most extraordinary teaching by Rabbi Natan, who says (Nedarim 20b): ‘The one who makes a vow, it is like he built a bamah (a forbidden altar); and one who fulfills his vow, it is like he offered a sacrifice upon it.’
It seems that these perspectives on vows are not positive. Vows are dangerous and best avoided. In one of the most famous cases of vows in the biblical era (Judges 11), we come across the story of Yiftaḥ, a man whose foolish vow (and inability to recognise the invalidity of such a vow) leads to the sacrifice of his own daughter.
However, if vows are so powerful and so dangerous, why does the Torah not declare them forbidden? Why allow us access to something with which we are clearly not to be trusted? Well, it turns out that we also have positive narratives of vows. At the very beginning of the First Book of Samuel, Ḥannah – who has been unable to bear a child – vows to the Divine that, should she be granted a son, she will dedicate him to live as a Nazirite. This is a clear vow which results in the birth of the Prophet Samuel, a highly important character in Israelite religious and political history. It seems that vows are dangerous, and the risk is great, but it is possible that sometimes that risk is worth taking.
The apprehension around vowing in our tradition comes down to a belief that vows are real, and our words have real impact on the world. Words created the universe and destroyed the Temple. Words brought life to the son of Ḥannah and death to the daughter of Yiftaḥ. Words can bind us and free us. And yet we live so loosely with our tongues. May we all learn to harness the power of language to create instead of destroy.