Matot- Rav Milston The Anatomy of Vows “And Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes of Bnei Yisrael, saying: This is the thing which the Lord has commanded. If a man vow a vow to the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that comes out of his mouth.” (Bamidbar, 30:2-3) Rashi notes that Moshe first introduces vows to the heads of the tribes in order to honor them. However, he stresses we cannot assume this commandment was not relayed to the masses in a similar way. Quite the contrary. Moshe first taught the new instruction to the leaders and then he taught the same thing to the people. Why was this particular halacha chosen as the prototype for describing how Moshe taught Torah to Am Yisrael? Rashi suggests the Torah is alluding to a special clause in Hilchot Nedarim that enables certain individual leaders of Israel to annul a vow instead of the equivalent three-laymen alternative. In other words, specifically in the realm of Nedarim, the qualified leaders have a special role to play. They and they alone can independently annul a vow in the correct circumstances. On the other hand, the Ramban suggests we take our verse more literally. Perhaps the regular process of teaching was suspended with regards to Nedarim. Not every individual is in control of what he or she says, and hence there is genuine concern that ‘vowing’ may get out of hand. Were the masses made fully aware of the ins and – more significantly – the outs (i.e. ways of annulling) of Nedarim, we could be facing halachic chaos resulting from unnecessary vows and a general atmosphere of leniency. Hence on this particular occasion, Moshe chooses to restrict this specific instruction to the leaders. The Ramban has indirectly touched upon a very serious and sensitive issue. As we know, the unique legal facet of a neder is that it enables a God-fearing individual to ‘add’ to the already existing 613 Mitzvot. If a person has a specific weakness, he can vow to strengthen his conviction in a particular way. The moment the words leave his lips, he knows he has added another personal Torah obligation to his already existing list. This may seem to be exemplary behavior, but it is only so if the person is a very highly motivated and religious individual. Because if people begin vowing before they are committed to the existing Mitzvot, it would become a farce and jeopardize other societal norms. Although every Jew is expected to abide by every instruction in the Shulchan Aruch, there is nevertheless a hierarchical infrastructure to Halacha. The most important laws are those of Torah origin, followed by rabbinical decrees, and then communal customs. When learning Shulchan Aruch, it is often difficult to discern between them and that is exactly the way it is meant to be. The layman is not meant to decide whether or not to observe a halacha depending on its origins. But the Posek, the halachic authority, does need to distinguish between different laws, because there are important differences between Torah laws and rabbinical decrees. By making rabbinical decrees and customs equal to Torah laws, we can see the aim of the Shulchan Aruch may well have been to strengthen their validity in the eyes of the masses. But what if this has the opposite effect? What would happen if – due to blatant ignorance – certain customs start to become more important than fundamental Torah principles? For example, what would happen if people began to emphasize certain forms of dress (nothing more than communal customs), whilst simultaneously ignoring the Torah laws of Sha’atnez? And what would happen if people took on extra stringencies by way of vows when they were far from fulfilling their regular obligations? Rav Yosef Nechemia Kornitzer, in his commentary on our parasha, emphasizes this issue by explaining the first verse in quite a novel manner: “This is the principle – which the Lord has commanded (firstly apply yourself to already existing Torah laws i.e. those laws that were commanded by the Almighty) – If a man vow a vow to the Lord (and only at that juncture are you qualified to enter the world of vows.)” Firstly do what you are commanded to do, and only then begin to vow vows. To paraphrase Ramchal, you cannot become a Chassid (aspiring to perform above and beyond the letter of the law) if you are not an established Tzaddik (doing what you are meant to be doing according to Jewish law.) Although the Ramban does not explicitly emphasize this theme in his opening comments, he is clearly skeptical of the people’s ability to internalize the purpose and relevance of Nedarim. The Torah therefore suggests leaving the details in the hands of the leaders in order to discourage the layman from getting involved. What was true in Krakow 80 years ago is equally if not more relevant today. If Rav Yosef Nechemia Kornitzer saw that people were losing perspective of right and wrong in his own time, what would he have said about religious Jewry in the 21st Century?! Is there a competition to see who can be more stringent in Torah observance? I must emphasize there is nothing wrong with chumrot, or with vows for that matter, as long as the following three minimal conditions are in place: 1. They are applied only when and where relevant and do not contradict fundamental Torah instruction. 2. Those who are adding vows and stringencies are worthy and can honestly testify that their thirst for more Avodat Hashem is a result of true spiritual ambition and not a result of pride or status. 3. The person musn’t regard others as any less religious than he is, just because they have not chosen to add extra restrictions to their daily commitments. Rav Zevin chose to emphasize another element of our opening verse: “…he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” If this specific mitzvah was particular to the leaders of Israel, its message must be particularly fundamental. The principle being stressed is not so much to do with the initial vow but more with the need to keep our word. This is such a basic norm, it is applicable to the entire Torah and not just to the subject of vows. Whether we are talking of Mitzvot bein Adam LeMakom or Mitzvot bein Adam LeChaveiro, there is an underlying demand we be true to our beliefs. Our actions must match our thoughts and vice-versa. “He shall not break his word.” This word reflects distinguishing levels. The correlation between our speech and our thoughts can be external or it can go very deep. There is absolute Truth, when a person’s entire being reflects who he is, and there is a more superficial truth, where a person’s commitments are slightly internalized but really only ‘skin deep.’ As we have mentioned on numerous occasions in this series, human beings are essentially composed of three elements: actions, speech and thoughts. It must be our objective to keep our word, because our word is reflected by our actions whilst simultaneously being a reflection of our thoughts. This is a lofty objective, and perhaps this is why it is primarily directed at the leaders. It is the Heads of the Tribes who must lead by example. The norms set by the higher echelons will inevitably be emulated by the masses. If a child speaks or behaves in a certain way, it is often a reflection on his parents. Similarly, the leaders set the tone and the people will follow. If there is absolutely no correlation between what the leaders say and do, what can be expected of the simple citizen? Let us conclude with the enlightening comments of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch : “This is a fresh pronouncement. It introduces a sphere of free-willed legislation… It opens the possibility for individuals as well as communities and the nation as a whole to establish permanent rules for ensuring the faithful keeping of the dictates of the Torah. So it is not without reason that this chapter is directed quite specially to the Princes of the Tribes. Each tribe should be seen as a ‘branch’ of the great nation as a whole, within which the one common national mission is to be brought to fruition through its own special characteristics. It was the task of the Heads of the Tribes to guide and then to keep the manners and customs which arose from the special tendencies of each of the ‘branches,’ as well as their laws, activities and efforts, in the direction commanded by the common national mission. And what is most indispensable as a means to achieve such activity, to a general national development, altogether for communal life, is the inviolability of the spoken word or promise – ‘he shall not break his word’…. Simultaneously, a healthy palliative to such vows and resolutions is entrusted to these Princes, as well as to the family counselors and spiritual advisors amongst the people, and it is also with an eye to this that the laws concerning vows are primarily directed at the Heads of the Tribes.” Rav Hirsch refers to a number of issues we have already alluded to. He notes that the individual vow is to be seen as ‘free-willed legislation’ which is “given as an appendage to the real legislation.” He also accentuates the communal and individual aspects of “he shall not break his word.” He notes the need for individual expression within the framework of the national consensus. Even though there is real legislation and vows are only accessories to that legislation, these voluntary, self-initiated embellishments nevertheless provide a crucial facility. They ultimately enable each and every tribe to express themselves in the most positive manner. Although we spoke earlier about losing perspective, Rav Hirsch reminds us of the advantages of vowing, on condition that this free-willed legislation is under the protective eye of the communal leadership. Each and every one of us is an integral part of Am Yisrael, but we are also individuals created by the Almighty. The need to unite and conform must not overshadow the independent role each human being has to play in this world. Just as each and every tribe has its role to play within Am Yisrael, so do we – as independent individuals – have a duty to serve the Almighty in a way that only we can. However, in order to ensure this positive element of self-expression in our service of God remains within the fold of legitimate halachic behavior, it is essential it be performed under the supervision of our leaders and teachers. They are the most qualified to objectively aid us in distinguishing between an expression of religious fulfillment and a superficial ‘religious’ act that is really no more than an ego trip!