Deuteronomy 23 :22 When you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; 23 whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing. 24 You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God, having made the promise with your own mouth.
This week’s parasha, Ki Teitzei, is one of those that is so incredibly filled with laws and teachings that, to choose a topic for a drash, it feels to me as if I’m doing a disservice, both to the text itself and to those who might read this. With that in mind, do me a favour and give this week’s parasha a read and see what jumps out at you; whether you’re inspired or angered or confused, or whatever really, give this week’s text some time and think about it, or reach out and talk about it with me or with someone else that you trust.
The topics in this week’s parasha range from the seemingly mundane (laws regarding safety, property, and prohibited mixtures) to the much more intense laws surrounding war, slavery, kidnapping, and sexual offences. I want to take a moment here to talk about vows, a topic that may seem mundane, but one that can have a serious impact when undertaken lightly.
The above quoted verses expand upon a familiar line from the beginning of Parashat Matot, which states, “If one makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath imposing an obligation on themselves, they shall not break their pledge, but must carry out all that has crossed their lips.” (Numbers 30:3), adding to it some significant points. In this week’s parasha, we are directed not merely to keep the vows we make to God, but to ensure that we do not delay our fulfillment of such vows as we will incur guilt.
Our tradition has a complicated relationship with vows and oaths. Vows are mentioned a number of times throughout the Torah and, in fact, there is an entire tractate of the Talmud dedicated to the topic (Nedarim), but we are given to understand not to undertake them lightly. In fact, we are reminded this week that we need not take them at all, stating, “you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing”. Vows and oaths, as the tradition understands them, are not simply intentions that we have for our behaviour, but specific statements, invoking the name of God, typically to abstain from a particular behaviour or activity. We should be no less flippant in our personal intentions and commitments.
At the beginning of the year, we often make of point of setting goals and committing to particular outcomes and, of course, there is nothing wrong with making commitments to ourselves; however, I would encourage us to be informed by this parsha when thinking about these commitments. We are enjoined by Moses in these verses to fulfill our promises as soon as possible. In order to do so, we must ensure that our commitments are reasonable. It is not uncommon to say to oneself that “I will always do” one thing or “I will never do” this other thing, but when we use this absolute language, we are being unrealistic and potentially endangering the very quality that we are attempting to safeguard in making the commitment. These personal commitments and promises may not hold the status of vows as defined by our tradition, but the consequences felt in failing to uphold them can be devastating. For someone beginning a new endeavour or taking up a potentially beneficial practice, there is a tendency to fall into all or nothing thinking. Many people will try to take on the full practice or all of the rules at one time only to find it overwhelming. Many years ago, when I first tried to take on Shabbat observance, as soon as I made a mistake I would either be overcome with guilt or simply give up for the rest of the day, reverting to old ways. Happily for me, my rabbi recognized my frustration and anxiety and encouraged me to take things more slowly, building up my observance over time, making my goal not perfection, but progress.
The third verse in the above quoted passage, Deuteronomy 23:24, is generally taken as a continuation on the theme of vows and most of our medieval commentators ensure us that “what goes out from your lips” is necessarily a vow of some kind that we must “keep” or “guard”. Refreshingly, the Sefat Emet (19th c. Rabbi and Commentator, Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger) explains this verse on its own, saying that what “comes out as we open our mouths” is “the breath and the inward self”. He states that it is through the mitzvah of study that we are able to guard this inner breath, which carries in it “the very root of a person’s life”, and goes on to say that this guarding “stands at the root of all one’s deeds”, for as our rabbis taught (Kiddushin 40b), study leads to action.
As much as we can hope to always be on guard, we all know that we will, at times, fail to do so. Our tradition has always accepted this, going so far as to teach that teshuvah, return or repentance, preceded creation. As we begin this new school year and prepare for the High Holidays, the Sefat Emet’s teaching on this verse remind me of the words of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (early 20th century Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine), who described teshuvah as a return to one’s self, to the root of one’s soul. Through the words of these teachers, we understand that we need not despair or fall into guilt over our failings. When I miss the mark or fail to reach my own lofty goals, I can return to myself and to the root of my soul; I can reevaluate my goals and move forward, acknowledging my progress in gratitude and free of guilt.