Parashat Matot / פרשת מטות
This week’s Torah portion deals with the complicated matter of vows and oaths. As this portion follows on the heels of a command regarding votive or voluntary offerings, most commentators say that vows refer to the promises people make to God in the form of offerings or sacrifices, e.g. “If I make it through this ordeal, God, I will give $18 to tzedakah.” Oaths are any promises made in God’s name, i.e. “I swear by God I’ll never eat shellfish again.”
On Yom Kippur we pay homage to commandments regarding vows when we recite Kol Nidre. The legalistic formulation of Kol Nidre emerged in the Middle Ages when many Jews took vows of allegiance to the Catholic church in order to save themselves from the horrors of the inquisition. Kol Nidre imagines each of us standing before a heavenly tribunal being released from any vows we may have made in the past year (or, depending on the version in your prayerbook, that we may make in the coming year) either willingly or under duress. In this way, even apostasy for the sake of saving one’s life is forgiven. To this day, many descendents of “conversos” from the Middle Ages rely on this forgiveness as they prepare to rejoin the Jewish people proudly and openly.
What we learn from this week’s Torah portion above all is to take our words seriously. While the Torah may be speaking narrowly about vows and oaths, we should extrapolate from this discussion the broader lesson that words and intentions really do matter. We ought not to make promises to God or to others that we don’t mean or that we know we are unable to keep.
On the other hand, if we find ourselves in a position where we must make such a vow or oath to preserve a life or we find that circumstances prohibit us from fulfilling a vow or oath, we must contritely acknowledge where we are. To “profane God’s name” in these situations is to not care, to take our promises lightly. On the other hand, we sanctify God’s name when we use these moments to ask for forgiveness or to contribute tzedakah as is appropriate. We sanctify God first by refraining from making vows and oaths in God’s name entirely. But, after the fact, after the vow or oath has been made, we infuse our promises with sanctity when we realize that sometimes our words express sacred commitments that we may not be able to avoid or that we legitimately may not be able to fulfill.