Concerning Vows and Oaths
This week we read a double portion, Mattot-Masei, concluding the book of Bamidbar, Numbers. The first Parashah starts by emphasizing the solemnity and biding character of vows and oaths.
Bamidbar 30:2-3: “Then Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes of the sons of Israel, saying, ‘This is the word which Yehovah has commanded: "If a man makes a vow (neder) to Yehovah, or takes an oath (sh'vuah) to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not desecrate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth"’.”
These are very powerful words. First and foremost this passage says that all our words are sacred, if we violate them, if we use them lightly and then negate them – words without any meaning, empty, or demeaning words - it is considered a desecration. This is not an “Old Testament” teaching but it is God’s Torah, the teaching of a Holy God who, when He took the form of a man, confirmed the validity of His Torah by reiterating its teachings: “For the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man” Matthew 15, i.e. words reflect what is inside one's heart, clean or unclean, and the actions that follow. How clean is one's heart? Listen to the words they speak then look at their deeds and you will know.
How careful should we consider then what we say, how we say it, and when we say it. Our sages told us to say little and do much because, as Ya’akov writes, “the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species both of wild animals and birds, reptiles and marine creatures is tamed and has been tamed by humankind. But no one is able to tame the tongue, a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless Yehovah and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been created according to the likeness of God. Out of the same mouth comes forth blessing and also cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be.” Ya’akov 3.
With our words we can build or we can destroy. Once our mouths release the words they cannot be brought back. How many times you said something and then regretted it but no matter how much you have apologized the damage has been done. The words from our mouths cannot be "struck out," "disregarded" or "erased;" once released they make an impression. Would you rather then not use words lightly, but speak meaningful words to each other and build each other up? For God says that He hears the words of the righteous, every one of our words, and He will cause them to be written down in a book of remembrance: “Then those who feared Yehovah spoke to one another, and Yehovah gave attention and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear Yehovah and who esteem His name” Malachi 3:16. By what kind of words would you like to be remembered? Therefore, let's get into the habit of speaking only words that can give honor to God.
Secondly, this Parashah’s above passage makes a distinction between a vow (neder) and an oath (sh'vuah). The Hebrew word “neder” denotes a solemn promise to consecrate something to God, or to do something in His service or His honor. There is no English equivalent for the word “neder” for by pronouncing this sort of vow the person is placing upon himself, upon others, or upon an object, a status equivalent to that of a commandment of the Torah. For example, by invoking a “neder” one can prohibit himself something that Torah permits, such as vowing not to eat a produce - even if that produce is kosher - i.e. becoming a vegetarian, it makes that produce forbidden thus changing its halachic status. By contrast, one can make an oath (sh'vuah) to eat a produce thus placing an obligation upon himself without changing its halachic status. Oversimplified, a "neder" is a resolve not to do something, and a "sh'vuah" is to do something.
In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, apostle Shaul gives us an example of a vow, a “neder,” which will bring honor to God: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up… Therefore, concerning the eating of the food which is sacrificed to an idol, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world and that there is no God but one… However, not all men have this knowledge. Some are so accustomed to the idol until now that when they eat, they think of the food as being sacrificed to the idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But this kind of food will not commend us to Yehovah; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor are we the better if we do eat. But beware lest somehow your liberty becomes a stumbling block to the weak ones. For if anyone sees you, the one having “knowledge,” eating in the temple of an idol, will not his conscience be strengthened so as to eat the things sacrificed to idols? For the one being weak is being destroyed by your "knowledge," the brother for whom Moshiach died. And thus by sinning against the brethren and wounding their weak consciences, you commit sin against Moshiach. Therefore, if this kind of food causes my brother to stumble, I should never eat meat sacrificed to an idol again, lest I cause my brother to stumble” 1 Corinthians 8. A worthy vow indeed not to be a stumbling block to anyone.
The same analogy can be made with the foods that God commanded the Jews to eat or not to eat. If we choose to use our “knowledge” and liberty to eat anything sold on the market are we not becoming a stumbling block to our Jewish friends, neighbors and acquaintances? Let us vow to be a light and salt unto this world, to be builders and not destroyers. Let us take a “neder” not to let our deeds obstruct the redemptive work of Yeshua on the Roman execution tree. Our Messianic faith is about Him and not about us. Our faith is about showing His love and grace and not showing our knowledge and satisfying our desires. Our faith is about obedience to Yehovah's commandments.
Regarding an oath, on the other hand, placing an obligation upon ourselves, Torah says to enjoy the good things that God provided for us and, if possible, do not make an oath at all: “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment” Ya’akov 5:12.
There is a tendency in human nature to forget in happiness, health and security the vows made in moments of anguish, sickness and danger. Oftentimes, when we are in distress and cry to God, we make vows to Him but as soon as that situation passes we forget the vows made. But that does not change the validity of the vow. Make a habit of writing them down and keep them close to your Bible because God will require them of you: “When you make a vow to Yehovah your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and Yehovah your God will surely require it of you” Devarim 23:21. Your words are your honor.
Have you ever made a vow to Yehovah? To work for His kingdom, to do something in His service or for His honor, and then, sometime later, found an excuse not to do what you have promised? Take a moment, a quiet time, and think about your walk with Yehovah. Think about how you felt and the promises you made when you became a believer, when His love was for the first time unveiled to you. Pray and resolve to take steps not to miss any more of the opportunities to serve Him.
Shabbat joy, peace and blessings! Shabbat Shalom!
PS: Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk used to say: "I have not succeeded in teaching my disciples never to sin, and only to perform good deeds. However, I have managed to make them different from other people. Most perform their good deeds in public and their transgressions in private, but my Hassidim perform their transgressions in public and their good deeds in private."
PS: "Rabbi Elazar said: 'Be diligent in the study of Torah; know what to answer an unbeliever; and know before Whom you toil, and Who your employer is that will pay you the reward of your labor.' "
"Rabbi Tarfon said: 'The day is short, the work is much, the workmen are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing.' He used to say: 'It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, yet you are not free to desist from it.' "
From Pirkei Avot
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