Leaders Who Can Open Doors to Teshuvah

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“… to the heads of the tribesIf a man makes a vow” (Numbers 30:2-4)

And why, specifically, was the commandment of releasing vows introduced by saying that Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes?

When a person does something three times, the doing of it and the repetition functions as a vow, (albeit a non-verbal one). In effect, it demonstrates that the behavior is being permitted for the person, that it is allowed to be done. So it is a de facto oath, undertaken by the creation of a habit.

These oaths are very difficult to annul because of the habit that has been established. In the case of addictions, the body and its cravings will sometimes overrule authority and reason. There are some situations in which even if the person decides to do what is right, he is unable to do so. The vow continues to hold sway on the person; annulment does not work.

The person needs someone who can help him and, those who can do so in such tricky situations are, from an empirical perspective, our leaders, the heads of our tribes.

The  pathway to releasing a person from his addiction is to elicit something that will begin the process of teshuvah in him. Regret is the first of the stages. They are: Identifying feelings of regret, asking for forgiveness of God or the person wronged, choosing to change the behavior, and changing it. Teshuvah gives the person the ability to take charge of the thing which had a grip on him before. Helping a person to feel regret helps to get them onto this path.

In every generation there are heads of tribes, empathetic souls who open a gate and a doorway to regret for us, to the knocking on the door of Teshuvah. They are the ones who can work with people in these situations. That’s why Moshe specifically spoke about annulment of vows to the heads of the tribes.


There is a difficult question in this section: Why is it that a mother or wife cannot annul her son’s or her husband’s vow, respectively, in the same way that a father or husband can annul the vows of a daughter or wife?

If we go back to the source of this asymmetry in traditional terms, then the reason at its core has to do with differences of men and women and the motivation for their making vows and annulling vows.

The vows that a man makes are very rooted to his relationship with time and Torah, and as the Izhbitzer wrote, (cf Sefer Mei Hashiloach section 1, Matot, cf “a man who swears an oath”), a man who makes an oath is engaged in an argument with Hashem Yitbarach regarding why something that should have been forbidden by the Torah was not. “Why wasn’t this or that thing forbidden by the Torah since this business trips up people like me and harms them.” This is the reason that Hashem Yitbarach has given us men the possibility to make vows over things and to cut them off as banned things to a person with the Torah‘s authority behind it because one makes an oath. (cf ibid)

Here is a summary of what the Izhbitzer says in this section: As Psalm 104:24  states, all of creation is complete. When creation happened God made the 613 mitzvot and because creation was complete, all these 613 include all needed laws for every person and for all time; there’s no need to change them.

But certainly we find situations from time to time when other things need to be forbidden. However, if a person enacts an injunction it can only carry the authority of a Rabbinic injunction because the Torah is complete.

But that’s why this section of vows was added to the Torah. By making an oath for something it carries the weight of the Torah with it. The vow becomes like all the 613 that were received by Moses.

In each generation, the 613 are received in a different form. And so if a generation views the need for a fence with the authority of the 613, that is a temporary thing.

As it says in the gemara, (Shabbat 119b), when you recite vayichulu on Friday night, just as you acknowledge that God created the universe, so you are also empowered to co-create the mitzvot through your vows. We’re empowered to make vows because of specific things related to our time which the Torah didn’t cover. Because of the changeability of time, everyone is entitled to create because in his time something temporary may be needed.

When creation of the world was finished, for the rest of time, it was our role to praise God. Every person stands in praise and thanksgiving to his creator and to the partnership. You are empowered to be a partner and the change the laws by making a vow in your time.

In this way, you will have the authority of the Torah behind you and you will not be angry and resentful for something the Torah didn’t have that was needed. And later, after the struggle for this thing is complete, the victory is won, he comes to the chacham to annul the vow. This thing is no longer needed and it gets canceled.

This is not the case for a woman who doesn’t need the official stamp on her vows. When she is pregnant or nursing, her primary focus and role is to make an oath in the direction of nature so that she shouldn’t benefit from things that would harm the fetus or nursling. She vows from a place of nature rather than from the central place of Torah for a man so that she would not benefit from things harmful to fetus or newborn.

In any event, we need to really look into it further. For example, why does the father have the authority to annul the vow of the daughter before she has children? Suppose she has Torah as her central place? And what about a woman who is past child rearing and wants to navigate from nature to Torah? And what about a boy who chooses nature over Torah? And can’t we merge Torah and nature? There are many questions that will need some more examination and discussion.

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