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Friday, 17 July, 2015 - 1:05 pm





An agreement was reached this week by global players, much to the consternation of Israel and the majority of Jewish people around the world. Many non-Jewish clear thinking moral and decent people are also scratching their heads in bewilderment over the deal.


A deal is a deal, goes the saying. When two people give their word to each another, it should count as a done deal.


Ask any decent and moral person the following: If someone promised to perform a particular action, must that promise be kept? Those decent and moral people would surely be inclined to say that the promise must be kept. That is quite obvious.


What would happen, though, if the person had a change of heart? The fellow could not keep his promise because of issues that were not present when the promise was made. Must the fellow still keep his word?


Earlier this week, someone discussed a personal dilemma with me. This person had been inclined to implement changes in life, which included greater attention to Jewish observance. With time, the person realized that the burden of these recent commitments was too much. It would have been distracting to the present reality. On the one hand, argued the person to me, the promise and commitments were made, and that should be the end of the story. On the other hand, the commitment was made by imagining that it would be possible to be carried out. That was valid, however, until the realities of these commitments had to be faced.


I asked the person many questions in order to understand properly and wrap my mind around the reality of the situation. When I realized that the reality leaves, indeed, no room for new commitments, I advised the person to leave the commitments on hold until the reality changes.


In this case, the commitments were made under incorrect pretenses. People, at times, tend to become enthusiastic and emotional about a particular matter. These feelings could lead one to lose focus of reality, and they may be persuaded to bite more than they can chew.


The most solemn and somber day on the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur. A most intense prayer of that day is the “Kol Nidrei” prayer, at the onset of the holiday. This prayer, in all its seriousness, requests that vows and promises that were declared without proper and full consideration of the consequences, be null and void.


In other words, a promise, a vow, should be considered sacred and binding. In the event the situation is not conducive to the vow, or when the reality changes, one can then begin the process of annulment of the vow.


This process is discussed at the onset of this week’s (double-header) Torah portion, “Matos.” The Torah presents the rules of vows more extensively than anywhere else: “Moses spoke to the tribal heads of the children of Israel, saying: ‘This is what G-d has commanded: When a person makes a vow to G-d, or makes an oath prohibiting himself, he may not violate his word. He must act in accordance with whatever he uttered.’” (Bamidbar (Numbers) 30:2-3.)


Because of the anomaly of the Torah addressing the above to the “Tribal Heads,” the Talmudic Sages deduce that people in position of Tribal Heads were granted permission to annul vows. The Torah relies on the leaders to examine each such situation thoroughly from an objective and teaching position. The leader can then advise the person whether annulment of the vow is permissible or not.


In the subsequent thirteen verses, completing the laws of vows, the Torah discusses three further scenarios in which vows regarding self-affliction may be ratified or vetoed: 1) The father of an adolescent woman under the father’s jurisdiction may annul the vow of his daughter. 2) Vows made by a woman may be vetoed by her betrothed man upon discovery of these vows. 3) A husband may revoke his wife’s vow when he hears about it. These scenarios are valid only when the woman’s vow of self-affliction could affect the man concerned.


Elsewhere in the Torah, on more than one occasion, the Torah imposes upon people, in clear terms, how one must carry out a promise. It is odd that, where the Torah chooses to present the collection of rules regarding vows, the overwhelming focus is on the annulment of the vows, rather than the upkeep of them!


From this odd fact, though, it is obvious that the Torah is not keen on people obligating themselves with self-afflicting vows. As the Talmudic Sages point out, the Torah presents sufficient rules which include self-affliction. That should be plenty for any person.


For this reason, the Torah places the authority of annulment in the hands of the “Tribal Leaders.” As experts in leading and understanding their constituents, they would possess the knowledge to not merely understand the situation of their people, but also to guide them in how they conduct their lives and commitments towards the Almighty and themselves.


While agreements and promises need to be treated with all seriousness, when people pay attention to reality, those promises may be voided. It does, though, take experts in the field, those with proficient and skilled knowledge of the actual issue, to offer their expertise. In medicine, in law, or in real estate, one would not consult with politicians, scientists, or bakers on how to proceed, but prudent people consult with the greatest and most erudite in any important field, especially in matters of life and death.


My personal opinion, or anyone’s personal opinion, is not necessary in judging the latest agreement between six countries and Iran. Experts in matters of security should be heeded carefully. And if they are asking people to be mindful of the reality, they also have the right and the expertise to call for the annulment or upkeep of this agreement based on the reality of the situation


In the meantime, the Psalmist declares: “The guardian of Israel… neither slumbers nor sleeps. G-d is your guardian. G-d is your protective shade at your right hand… G-d will protect you from every evil… From now and forever.” (Psalms 121:4-8.)



SUMMARY: Revoking and annulling vows by experts is given more regard in the Torah than keeping vows, for reality must be regarded when it comes to vows and agreements.



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