Vows and A Gate of Regret

The following comes from Reb Zalman on this week’s Torah portion, MattotMassei. [NOTES by Gabbai Seth Fishman]

In Mattot / tribes, the Torah speaks about people who make vows,  (Numbers 30:2, ff):

Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel, saying: This is the thing the Lord has commanded:  If a man makes a vow, etc.

The way in which the Torah has Moses addressing this to the heads of the tribes is unusual, and it makes us wonder why this law alone was to be addressed to the heads rather than directly to the children of Israel. 

Speech is something to be taken seriously and vows are a form of speech. 

(Psalms 33:6) “By the words of God heavens were made.” 

Words are powerful when they are not made hollow. If they are made hollow, there is a sense of desecration. As the Torah says, (Numbers 30:3),

When a person makes a vow let hir not desecrate it: According to all that comes forth from hir lips, s/he shall activate.

Then, the text goes on to say something of the circumstances in which a vow cannot be kept, as when an underage woman is still in the house of her father and her father disagrees and nullifies; or a  married woman with a husband or father who disagrees and nullifies.

So a possible explanation for this law having been addressed to the heads of the tribes is the following: 

In order to release a person who makes a vow from the vow, the head of the tribe helps the person find a “gate of regret.”

The Ishbitzer offers a teaching concerning vows:

Why would a person  want to make a vow to forego a thing that had been permitted?

He offers an answer:

When someone has an addiction, a habit of which they want to rid themselves, for instance, an alcoholic who wants to stop drinking, s/he would wonder, “Why didn’t the Torah forbid the drinking of alcohol to everyone?”

In hir mind, the drinking of alcohol should be forbidden with a power of a scriptural commandment.

So, if s/he makes this kind of a vow, the Torah, in effect, gives hir the opportunity to make alcohol forbidden to hir on the same level as if it were pork.

This example shows why one might make a vow to cut oneself off from a thing that is harmful to one and why the offer the Torah makes of the possibility for such a vow is a tool that is from God’s compassion.

However, there are also circumstances under which one has to annul such a vow because it no longer fits into the life of the individual. 

[NOTE:  For example, take the case where after making the oath, the individual did not stop drinking.  The failure to stop the activity coupled with the oath to stop worsens the situation because the oath is not being kept.]

It is for this case that the option is open to find people on the level of “head of the tribe” to help the individual find the gate of regret and in this way annul the vow. 

[NOTE:  The annulment comes through a ritual called Hatarat Nedarim / The Release of Vows.  Please see the following post for Reb Zalman’s translation of the ritual:  https://www.jewishrenewalhasidus.org/?p=113]

Just breaking the vow without engaging the help of a process on how it is to be annulled would make one’s words seem hollow, desecrated and no longer potent with transformational power.

There was a time when Werner Ehrhardt was teaching people about languaging.

[NOTE:  I.e., the power of the word.  Ehrhardt was the founder of EST, an intensive two-weekend course that was popular from 1971 to 1984.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werner_Erhard]

Most of the time we use language in a very loose way and we don’t really stand behind what we are saying. This week’s Torah reading shows us that one is to take what one says seriously and stand behind it.  And if we need to change what we said we would do, we should not treat this as a private issue to be changed alone and in private.  Rather, it should be done before a court of three peers.

This is why before the high holy days we turn to people and ask them to do Hattarat Nedarim / The Release of Vows for us.  It helps restore the potency of the words that one will be using in prayer.

There are also occasions when we make non-verbal vows, i.e., kinds of commitments that are not necessarily declared as formal vows, but have the same kind of effect in terms of their power. Our bodies are very literal in terms of the way they reflect our intentions, and if one has a certain expectation of an outcome that is not good or not healthy, the intention to follow through with a commitment regarding this expectation, even if not formally, or publicly declared, still may have become a reality for us.  In such a case, too, it is important to bring about healing through a Hattarat Nedarim / The Release of Vows. 

For example, there was a person I recall visiting who was suffering from an incurable cancer.  He had just turned 60, and he told me that during the course of his illness and when he had been younger, he asked God to let him please live to be 60.  Now the age had come and he wished he could live longer.  So, for this situation, we went through the process of Hattarat Nedarim / The Release of Vows for him in order to help him feel that the vow he had made would not be at odds with extending his life span beyond 60.

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