Earlier week, as I was going to sleep, I made the most sacred of vows. I made a vow that has been made in different forms by generations before me, and one that I myself have made before. I promised myself that the next day, I was going to stop eating sugar and start doing yoga.
It is our nature to make promises to improve our behavior. Yet despite all our good intentions, we tend to slip every now and then. It was only after looking at this weeks Torah portion, which begins with the meaning and rules of vows , that I began to wonder about the gravity of the oaths we make to ourselves, to each other, and to sometimes, God.
In this week’s parsha, Matot Masei, as we are making our way towards the promised land, Moshe teaches the laws on the annulment of vows to the heads of the tribes of Israel. He tells us that if any man, or any woman, makes a vow or oath to God, than he or she must fulfill it. These vows can be a positive commitment, like giving $100 to charity, or a negative commitment, like swearing off alcohol. Once you take a vow, The Torah offers no course of absolution—you are committed to living with that promise.
This is a bit disconcerting. Obviously the Torah forgot about the exception of having a glass of wine when your parents or children come to visit, or eating cake on your birthday, or not doing your daily stretches because you went on a really long walk yesterday! How can the text be so strict about not breaking a vow, when we are so prone to it?
The rabbis of the Talmud were so worried about people breaking their vows, that many of them discouraged Jews to make them at all. There is no way we can know what the future will bring when we make a promise, and we may be put in a situation where we have to break our vow. Therefore, its safer not to make them.
But does mean we shouldn't make them at all? Should I not to vow to improve my diet, excerise, or change any behavior, because i might not succeed? Doesn't making the vow actually increase the chances that I will change my behavior, since I made a serious declaration about it? I think the answer might vary from person to person.
And on the other hand, if I do break my vow, then i am burdened by shame and weight of not fulfilling my promise. My trust in myself might be damaged, my word could loose some of its power and value. And if I break my vow to another, then I could be hurting someone else, and I will have to rebuild the diminished trust between us.
Rashi, a great biblical commentator, notes that the word for “break” in this parsha, the word yakhel is related to yekhallel, meaning to secularize or make ordinary. Instead of "do not break your word," he reads, "do not profane your word." Don’t treat your word as if it is unholy. Because the words we say with the goal of becoming a better person, are inherently holy, and if you don’t follow through, you are not honoring the holy power in you.
In my eyes, equally as holy is our power to forgive. Our tradition teaches us that there can be no vow without the possibility of forgiveness. The rabbis made sure that we would be forgiven for breaking a vow — if you break an oath, you appear before three people and present why you couldn’t keep it, what information you were missing when you made the promise, they would absolve you. On Yom Kippur, the rabbis included the Kol Nidre, which nullifies all oaths that we made before and any we will make in the future. We already know that we are going to make mistakes.
It is hard to break habits and improve ourselves, and it can be difficult to forgive yourself when break a promise to a friend, or break a vow that will make you healthier and happier. This is why I have a sacred practice. If I say a vow to myself, and I break it, then I must say, that I forgive myself. If the words of the vow are holy, then the words of forgiveness are just as holy. And it is impossible to live fully if you are dragging behind you a string of broken promises.
So tonight, when you are lying in bed, say these words: “I forgive myself. Any promises I’ve broken, mistakes I’ve made, I forgive myself.”
May we keep yearning to be better, promising to help each other, and forgiving ourselves when we fall short.