A few years ago, I had to give testimony in a court proceeding. The judge asked the clerk “to swear me in” on the Bible of my choice, and I demurred. The judge was very considerate to my religious concerns, and immediately had me affirm that my testimony was the truth. When I told the story to my eighth grade students, one of them asked if this would lead to more lies in court. I smiled at her innocence, and explained that nowadays the oath doesn’t prevent perjury. It’s the fear of punishment that cowers us into truthfulness. Sadly, there is no such fear in Washington. It’s ironic that the city named after the “man who could not tell a lie” is the headquarters for fibs. But this modern cavalier attitude toward oath-taking was not always true. Premodern people were truly in awe of oaths. And this was especially true of our Jewish ancestors. This week’s Torah reading broaches the topic of oaths, and that’s where I’m headed as well.
Oaths are such a big topic in our faith that not one, but two tractates of our Talmud discuss the issue. One is called Shavuot and the other is Nedarim. I don’t want to get technical about the differences between the two, but generally we say nedarim are when a person prohibits or obligates an object or act, while shavuot are when the vow is on the person, not the object or act. Although there is a lot more to be said about these statements, the easiest way to explain it is that one vow is on the thing (cheftza) and the other is on the individual (gavra). But none of this is what I’d like to discuss this week.
Our parsha states: If a person makes a vow to the Lord or makes an oath to prohibit oneself, that person shall not violate one’s word; according to whatever came out of one’s mouth, a person shall do (Numbers 30:2). It seems that we have a mitzva from the Torah to make these declarations and then fulfill them. You might justifiably believe that the Torah is encouraging us to make and fulfill these sanctified statements. But here’s the rub: The Sages are very much against it. In tractate Nedarim (22b), the Sages say that one who declares an oath has virtually built an illegal altar (bama), and if one fulfills the vow, it’s as if a sacrifice has been offered upon it. But why do the Sages seem to compare this Torah-mandated act to totally improper religious behavior?
The simplest and most popular approach is to ask, “Didn’t God give enough mitzvot?” I mean, isn’t 613 a big-enough number? And what would the pomegranates think? I’m sorry, but I don’t find that approach compelling. The Sages themselves have added mitzvot.
The Kli Yakar (Rav Shlomo Efraim Luntzshitz) plays off an idea in the Talmud. The Sages chastise one who swears in anger, because that person has entered the realm of foolishness (Shavuot 26a). Rav Lunzshitz explains that the comparison with the offering on an illegal altar is the one who swore in anger but carried through on the oath even after the rage subsided. The great 17th-century rabbi theorizes that the real spiritual shortcoming is vanity. His support for this supposition is another Talmudic statement, that one who displays arrogance and conceitedness is also compared to one who offers on illegal altars. In this case, it’s an altar to one’s ego. The pride displays itself in an inability to admit and correct the mistake by annulling the vow. Instead, the oath-maker carries out the promise, despite no longer being upset.
This cogent approach explains the position of our Sages, but still leaves open the question of why the Torah permits this oath-making in the first place. Of course, we could always just say that the ways of the Creator are inscrutable, and this is a chok. But then I wouldn’t have an article this week.
I think that oaths have a therapeutic value. Starting with Alcoholics Anonymous, the most common thinking about addictions is that abstention is necessary. So, I believe that the Torah was initiating that concept and telling us that a person who recognizes such an issue in their personality can make an oath to prohibit the addictive activity. Conversely, a person who realizes that support is required to perform certain acts, again, makes an oath to perform the necessary task.
Addictions are serious conditions, and I’m not suggesting that this is the simple solution. One of the world’s great experts on addictions and a major spiritual guide for modern Jews, Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski, said in an article for Aish.com, “The addict’s sincere promise to abstain cannot be given credence. Without proper help, the course of an addiction is invariably progressive, with ruinous and possibly catastrophic results to oneself and family.” Addicts need care on many levels—medical, family and spiritual. What I’m suggesting is that by transforming a promise into a religious commitment, we can give it more weight in the psyche of the addict.
It’s a funny thing about addictions, like cigarettes or the internet, for example. Many religious Jews are able to abstain for the duration of Shabbat. I remember a number of people who would light their cigarettes from the Havdalah candle, but somehow the commitment to Shabbat was greater than the commitment to the smoke. I’m thinking that these vows and oaths can similarly help us in a serious fight against addictive behavior. The Torah is giving us another weapon in this war that must be waged.
By Rabbi David Walk