On vows (and what we’ll do in the heat of the moment)
First, allow me to mention all those verses of Torah that I’m not going to expound on today:
- The slaughter of the Midianites — every man, woman, and child, except for the girls & young women who were still virgins. The booty for this excursion was 675,000 sheep, 72,000 head of cattle, 61,000 donkeys, and 32,000 people – mostly female – plus gold, silver, copper, and other precious metals. All this, and not one Israelite fighter killed.
- How the tribes of Reuven and Gad (plus the “half-tribe” of Manasseh) were granted the right to stay on the east side of the Jordan River and not enter Canaan proper. In exchange for good grazing land, they were a) to help the rest of the Israelites take over Canaan; and b) conquer the Amorites & other assorted peoples who were on the land they were to inherit.
- The boundaries of the Israelite kingdom (see here for a nice map), including most of present-day Israel, as well as the entire West Bank, a large swath of Lebanon, some of Egypt, and if you include the land from #2, a chunk of Jordan.
- Cities of refuge: six cities that people could go live in safety after they accidentally killed someone. Not for those who murder with forethought and purpose; also not for those who kill in time of war.
I’m going to stay away from all these charged and bloody topics and instead focus on the opening line of this week’s Torah portion, Mattot (heads, as in chieftains):
If a man makes a vow to the Lord 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.
Hell, I’m even going to ignore all the verses that outline scrupulously the rules for women’s vows (which are the responsibility of her father or husband). The ancients who wrote the Torah were just of their time and not of mine: they can’t help their nearsightedness.
So. What is a vow? Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary says it is a “solemn promise or assertion”. This does not include the occasional so help me God, but I’m going to kill you if you leave the toilet seat up one more time; but rather, a vow is that promise made to oneself – and perhaps with the help of larger forces – that means something. We vow to be better people, exercise more and eat less sugar, take better care of the planet, spend more quality hours with our families. To not waste time. To be the people we think we should be.
Heady things, vows, and even as we make them, we know that we’ll likely not succeed. These everyday failures are the focus of this week’s poem, titled simply Vows. Promises large and small made with utmost sincerity and often impossible to keep. This impossibility is what makes the Kol Nidre prayer so powerful every year – our knowledge that we tried (or tried to try) to live up to our word and failed. Once again, even as time rushes by. Once again, despite everything we believe in. We change, our vows change, someone puts a sword in our hand.