Vows and Oaths

Parashat Mattot begins with various regulations concerning the making – and breaking – of vows and oaths. As is apparent from the text the Torah takes this issue very seriously. Vows and oaths made to Hashem were to be fulfilled at all times and only in specific situations, detailed in our parashah, could they be annulled.  It is for this reason that in the Messianic Writings the making of vows and oaths is apparently argued against. “Again, you have heard that our fathers were told, ‘Do not break your oath,’ and ‘Keep your vows to Adonai.’ But I tell you not to swear at all – not ‘by heaven,’ because it is G-d’s throne; not ‘by the earth,’ because it is his footstool; and not ‘by Yerushalayim,’ because it is the city of the Geat King.  And don’t swear by your head, because you can’t make a single hair white or black.  Just let your ‘Yes’ be a simple ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ a simple ‘No’; anything more than that has its origin in evil.” (Matt 5:33-37).

In this passage Yeshua ostensibly prohibits the taking of vows, specifically swearing upon something holy. We can well imagine how swearing upon holy objects, so as to add emphasis to our words and the strength of our feelings, can occur in the course of natural social interaction. Indeed, it even plays a key part in our legal process as those who give testimony in court must lay their hand on the Scriptures and profess that they will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But Yeshua instructs us to “Just let your ‘Yes’ be a simple ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ a simple ‘No’.”

Thus Yeshua characteristically cuts to the chase. It’s not that the making of vows and oaths are wrong in themselves otherwise the Torah would already have prohibited it. But we nevertheless have a problem and that lies in our human capacity to say whatever will most meet our needs or achieve our aims in the immediate moment. I might find myself in a difficult situation so I promise whatever I can regardless of my real ability or inclination to deliver. Or I might swear upon my mother’s life or upon all that is holy in order to achieve my goal. Five minutes later, however, we conveniently forget the vow we have made and neglect to carry it through. Thus our promise comes to mean nothing. As the Scriptures tell us, the human heart is deceitful above all else.

When we break our word we demean both ourselves and the one to whom the promise was made. When that person is a human being it is bad enough. Trust is thus broken and relationships are forever damaged. When that person is G-d Himself the damage is even more serious and our relationship with G-d is profoundly affected. Better not to have promised at all!

Yeshua’s point is that we ought to be people whose word is their bond anyway, but such as these are hard to find in these days. How precious it is when someone actually delivers on their promise in any sphere of life! People who keep their word, whose ‘Yes’ is ‘Yes’ and whose ‘No’ is ‘No’, are a rare and precious commodity and we should aim to emulate them. Honourable, reliable and trustworthy. In fact, we should aim to be just like our G-d, whom, as the blessing for the Haftarah asserts, “first speaks and then performs”!

Where would we all be if G-d cared less about His promises to us? Recognising and then confessing the deceitfulness of our heart is the first step on the path to becoming like our L-rd. This, after all, is the reason for Kol Nidre – All Vows. On Yom Kippur how can G-d take seriously our pleas for forgiveness and promises to live rightly when we’ve broken so many promises in the previous year? How does He know that this time we are really serious? Only by our recognising and confessing our sin in this regard may we receive His release and blessing. That’s what Kol Nidre is all about. But we really don’t have to wait until Kol Nidre to make such a change. Start today! Start now! Aim to become a man or woman of your word and you take a step closer to G-d!

Rabbi Yehoshua