This week’s double parsha begins: “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the Lord has commanded: If a man makes a vow 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.”
The Torah tells us that any vow made by a man must be fulfilled in its entirety, but any vow made by a girl or woman may be annulled by her father or husband on the day he learns of it. If this is not done, daughters’ and wives’ vows are fully binding, as are those of women who are divorced or widowed and thus not under a man’s authority.
Today, the notion that a father or husband could annul a woman’s vow is disconcerting. But long ago, the rabbis limited the scope of this power. Because the text speaks of a girl’s vows bi’n’ureha, in her youth, they limited the father’s ability to annul her vows to the period during which she is considered a na’arah (young woman), the six months from age 12 to 12-and-a-half. Similarly, because the text speaks of a married woman’s vow l’anot nefesh, a vow of self-denial, the rabbis limited the husband’s authority to those vows that might cause his wife personal discomfort or might affect the relationship between husband and wife.
Earlier generations, though, were less concerned about gender equality than we are today, so there were other aspects of this passage that piqued their interest.
The Hatam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, was a leading figure of Hungarian Orthodoxy in the late 18th and early 19th century. He was famous not only as a halachist, but also for his vehement opposition to Reform and any innovation in Judaism. In his Torah commentary, he notes the unusual opening words, “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes,” and says: “Why was only this parsha dealing with oaths spoken directly to the heads of the tribes? The reason is that, in most cases, it is the leaders of the community [i.e., the politicians] who make all types of promises that they don’t keep.”
As Kohelet taught (1:9), Ein hadash tahat hashemesh — There is nothing new under the sun. Particularly in an election year, it’s good to be reminded that candidates for national, state, and local office will be making all sorts of promises. Some of these politicians will be absolutely sincere, laying out a program they honestly believe is in the best interests of all the people. Others, of course, will make whatever promises they and their pollsters believe we want to hear. Our job as voters is to look beyond the promises. We have the responsibility to try our best to figure out which candidates have realistic plans to deliver what they promise and the character to do what they have said they will do.
Moreover, the Hatam Sofer had more to say about this passage: “All of the Torah depends on ‘This is what the Lord has commanded,’ this being the most fundamental of all principles, namely that a person should not violate that which he has accepted upon himself as a vow or oath. Without this, there is no basis for the entire Torah, which we accepted as a covenant.”
At Sinai, our ancestors agreed to accept the Torah and live by its commandments, and their oath binds us as well. While individual Jews may be more or less learned, more or less observant, it is ultimately our acceptance of the brit, the covenant, our willingness to align our personal fate with that of the Jewish people, that marks us as Jews.
The rabbis teach that we should not rush to make vows; indeed, we should consider very seriously whether they should be made at all. But above all, when a person does make a vow, there is nothing more important than keeping his or her word.