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Why is the Torah Obsessed with Vows?

In a text filled with all kinds of laws, there seems to be a special emphasis on vows:

You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God, having made the promise with your own mouth. (Num. 30:3)

The Hebrew word for vow, neder appears in one form or another no fewer than 48 times in the text, which seems all out of proportion to the relative importance of a promise that a person may speak. The natural question is: why?

The short answer is that vows are important to G-d because Jacob demonstrated that vows are important to mankind. Jacob is the first person to make a vow, swearing that if G-d protects him on his journeys, that Jacob will make G-d his god, and he will build a house for G-d and tithe to him. (Gen. 28:20-23).

The story is much thicker than this, however. The laws of vows are quite strenuous, repeating that a person should always keep their vows, and do it without any delay and without any short shrift. I suggest that this is so because Jacob does not appear to remember his own vow to G-d, and G-d has to remind him of it.

I am the God of Beth-el, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to Me. Now, arise and leave this land and return to your native land.’” (Gen. 31:13)

Left alone, man procrastinates, which we should never do on fulfilling our promises. Indeed, Jacob himself never entirely fulfills his vow; he does not build G-d’s home, for example. The laws of vows stress, time and again, the more rigorous requirements for fulfilling any vow, as a corrective against Jacob’s demonstrated performance.

When you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not put off fulfilling it. (Deut 23:22)

Jacob puts off fulfilling his vow, hence the reminder in the law.

Note that the text in the above verse uses the word “shalem” for fulfillment, meaning “to make whole.” Which in turn explains another mystery: when Jacob does what G-d tells him, and he returns to the land of Canaan, the text says:

“Jacob arrived whole in the city of Shechem which is in the land of Canaan” (Gen 33:18)

By answering G-d’s prompt to remember his vow and return to the land, Jacob is credited with fulfilling the vow as soon as he returns to the land.

And the connections multiply from this!

Late in the Torah, G-d is talking about sacrifices being made in the land of Canaan, but exclusively in one place. It is a long discourse (Deut 12:5-26). This is a repeated phrase: “Only in that place.” The word for place, makom, is found for the first time in the Torah as the very same place where Jacob rests his head, dreams of angels, wakes up, and then makes the very first vow. The place where we bring offerings (and especially vow-offerings) is the place where the first vow was made.

But such sacred and vow-donations as you may have shall be taken by you to the site that the LORD will choose. (Deut. 12:26)

Then it all comes full circle. Because the place where we are to make our sacrifices is Jerusalem (note the “shalem” in the name, connecting to fulfillment of vows). We put the tabernacle there, as G-d’s house­, fulfilling Jacob’s vow to build G-d’s house. We bring our tithes to that place, recognizing that all of our blessings come from G-d, just as Jacob said he would. The place where we are to fulfill our vow-offerings is the very same place where the first vow was made!

We value vows because Jacob did. We must keep them punctually and without short shrift because Jacob did not. We must bring vow offerings to the very same place where Jacob made that first vow. And when we do so, we will be complete, just as Jacob was complete when he listened to G-d by returning to the land of Canaan. When we put it all together we, the Jewish people, are bound by Jacob’s vows: we are to build G-d’s house, and bring tithes at that place to fulfill the vow that Jacob made to G-d.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production!]

Comments are welcome!