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Mattot-Massei. Vows - The Power and the Danger

The concept of a vow, the topic with which our parsha opens, is quite radical. As an ordinary civilian, I can take on a new obligation, or utter a ban for myself, and by combining my commitment with God’s name this vow has real and binding legal force:

“If a person 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.” (Bamidbar 30:2)

Our words have enormous impact. Or maybe more accurately, the power of our intention when coupled with the divine name, create a binding commitment.

But why would a person do this? Why would I want to invoke God’s name in an oath? For what purpose?

I would like to share a teaching of my teacher, Rav Yehudah Amital z”l, whose seventh yahrzeit is today. He suggests that people take vows in a moment of religious weakness, or alternatively religious passion. People who have experienced failure in religious observance are motivated to add restrictions and safeguards, to take oaths and vows, to add stringencies and acts of abstinence to ensure that they will not slide again towards sinfulness, much like a person who needs to lose weight might vow never to eat pretzels. But he also may vow or to exercise daily; similarly people experiencing the impetus for religious advancement might take a vow to expand and intensify their religious commitments. Rav Amital writes: