Parshat Matot - What's your Word?

This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his                                                               neshama.  
By Shoshana Rosa

Have you ever listened to the soulful  "Deaf Man in a Shteeble (synagogue)" by the band Lev Tahor? It's a song about a chazon (cantor) whose deaf father is his biggest supporter, "When the davening (service) is over, he's the first to reach his son and the deaf man in the shteeble says 'Well done.'." 

Toward the end of the song, the chazon mysteriously shows up late for evening Yom Kippur services. He then proceeds to sing Kol Nidrei (the prayer that marks the beginning of Yom Kippur - the day of atonement) and it is by far the best performance he has ever had -- afterward, he admits that because his father had just passed away, he wanted to give him nachas.              . 

I can understand why the background to this moving melody is the Yom Kippur services; after all, the song brings one into the sobering mindset of The Day of Atonement. Death happens; we have to reassess, prioritize etc. But what's Kol Nidrei got to do with it? And why is Yom Kippur begun with Kol Nidrei at all; it has no actual connection to ma'ariv (the evening prayers). Finally, what is so important about saying Kol Nidrei -- an attempt to free oneself from his intentional/ unintentional, past/ future vows and oaths -- that Yom Kippur night became dubbed Kol Nidrei night?

The Artscroll siddur (highly recommend) offers two explanations. One is that the Torah takes a Jew's word very seriously -- as far as G-d is concerned, a Jew's word is sacred, so sacred in fact, that the Torah advises against taking vows at all costs since the sin for breaking a vow can sometimes be punished with the death of one's loved ones (Shabbos 32b). Yep, so for obvious reasons, Hashem (G-d) is against taking vows since it leads to a person's putting himself in the line of fire. If one makes on oath for a good reason, fine, but if he doesn't have a good reason, it's not good. The idea here is to be mindful before you speak. Don't just go shooting off your mouth. 

If that's the case, it makes sense that we start Yom Kippur, not with cries of repentance but sighs of, "I didn't live up to my commitments; I didn't show that I was faithful to my integrity; what's my word worth?

To G-d, our word is everything! If we cannot hold true to it, then we are missing something integral to the Jewish religion.    

There's another deep underlying reason as to why we preface Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei. Over the centuries, we have done much to anger G-d. Time and time again, G-d has taken oaths that He would punish, exile and do away with the Jews in one form or another. Our saying Kol Nidrei is a plea for G-d to nullify His oaths so that we may live, repent and thrive.  

Interestingly enough, the beginning of this week's Parshat Matot enumerates the different kinds of vows a person can make. Just in case you are a close read, there were two forms of vows mentioned here: נדרים ושבועות -- vows and oaths. Quick clarification: a person cannot make permissible that which is forbidden, but he can make forbidden that which is permissible. That being said, what is the difference between the two? 

נדרים, or vows, can only be made regarding objects. For instance, in a fit of insanity, one can suddenly announce that avocados are no longer something he will be able to eat. They are now forbidden to him. And if he eats one after making such an announcement, i.e. a vow, the consequences will be dire. 

שבועות, oaths, on the other hand, can only be made regarding the person. You can make an oath to do or not to do something, such as committing yourself to setting the record for longest time spent without showering in the Guinness book of World Records. Even though the oath is banal, not to mention brainless, breaking it is not recommended.
Next, the Torah launches into the ins and out of when a woman takes vows regarding her father, her husband or even her betrothed (30:4-9). If he isn't happy with the vow she takes, he has until nightfall to revoke it. If he remains silent, however, it stands. Feeling concerned about the possible hint of oppression towards women by men, I took a look at the commentaries to gain a deeper understanding. Why is a woman's personal vow tied into her husband's willingness to let it stand or not? Isn't it her life, her business? Also, why can't the roles be reversed? How come a man's vows standing or not standing do not depend on his wife?

Let's take a spin into the land of marriage dynamics for a moment: first off, a man is actually limited in the vows he is allowed to revoke regarding his daughter, wife or betrothed -- he can only annul that which directly affects him and/or that which causes her deprivation -- the underlying reason being that this is necessary for the sake of marital harmony. If she, for example, takes a vow to avoid deodorant for the next six months, or that she's going to go on a hunger strike, he has until nightfall to tell her to knock it off. As an aside, if a father (or co') agrees to a vow but then changes his mind and revokes it, he bears her iniquity. So you know, the guy's doesn't have total freedom to be a flake. Just as is the case with taking vows, one must think before he makes that fateful decision: do I remain silent and let it stand or do I protest? 

Above all, don't be a dingbat. 

Let's just be clear: the above is NOT about being involved in a power struggle. However, the reason women cannot revoke their husband's or betrothed's vows (leaving the father aside since we're assuming that the father knows best) has to with the psychological makeup of the relationship. A woman, by nature, is more loyal, devoted and dedicated to her husband. From the side of the husband, a man will generally become more remote toward that which he doesn't like... In short, it's not a good recipe for marriage if she's allowed, on a whim, to make vows that would damage the framework of the marriage.

Note to still concerned readers: if the marriage itself is unbalanced or unhealthy, to the point where the man's using his power to take vows with the intention of annoying his significant other, then the local Jewish court can step in and insist that he have his vows revoked.   

Think about it for a minute.

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