73. Matot - OATHS AND VOWS

THE OPENING part of our sidrah deals with the laws of nedarrim —vows. Everyday experience attests to the fact that oaths and vows are a fitting theme for a sermon. In order to convince someone of the truth of his words a man will say, "I swear to God that this is so! " or, "May God strike me dead if what I say is not the truth!" There are others who will even swear on the health and well-being of their family. I knew a man who at the slightest expression of doubt in the veracity of his statement would blurt out, "Mein shvigger zoll azoi lebben vee ich zog dem emess." This malady has especially infected the business community. People who buy and sell swear frequently in order to make the best deal possible.

That our sages were vehemently opposed to this practice goes without saying. They went as far as stating that afilu al haemet ein yafeh lehishova , that it is not proper to swear even on the truth (Tanhumah, Vayikra).

It is said that to this day members of the famed Rothschild family will not take an oath. How did this tradition come about? The story goes that the founder of the family, Meir Anshel Rothschild, was a gabbai zedakah in his community. One day a sum of money was stolen from the charity chest, and rather than take an oath that he did not take it, Meir Anshel borrowed money from friends and paid the entire sum. But people kept talking and suspicion persisted. A janitor who took care of the premises of one of the Jewish institutions became drunk one day and blurted out that he had taken the money. The rabbi of the town called on Meir Anshel Rothschild, pleaded on behalf of the entire community for forgiveness, and offered his blessing that God should give him and his descendants long life and wealth.

There are instances, however, when taking an oath is necessary. When one is called upon to be a witness in a court of law, he has no choice but to comply. If it is discovered that he has sworn falsely he can be penalized for perjury. Similarly, when one applies for citizenship, enters the armed forces or assumes public office he has to swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Some years ago I witnessed the induction of soldiers into the armed services of Israel. As each of the soldiers was presented with a rifle, some said ani nishba — I swear. Others said ani matzhir —I affirm. It was explained that those who "affirmed" were religious soldiers who were permitted to use the term matzhir rather than taking an outright oath.

There are still other instances when swearing has a positive value. If the oath serves a worthwhile purpose it is even praiseworthy to swear. Thus one of the great sages of the Talmud has ruled— nishbayin lekayem et hamitzvah shemutar lo leadam lezarez et atzmo. "It is proper to swear to perform a mitzvah , for a man is permitted to urge himself on (to do a good deed)."

Leading personages in the Bible took oaths for that reason. Abraham made Eliezer swear that he would choose a proper wife for Isaac. Jacob made Joseph take an oath to bury his remains in the mearat hamachpelah , for the old man feared that Pharaoh, out of a desire to have Jacob buried in Egypt, might interfere. Joseph did the same with his brothers, and for a similar reason.

Menasheh Ben Israel, the famous Jewish scholar and leader in Holland, wrote a book to prove the malicious fraud of the Blood Libel. He worked hard to gain permission for the readmission of the Jews to England from which they had been expelled several centuries earlier. He swore before Oliver Cromwell that the Blood Libel was utterly false.

A number of years ago a man I know well had suffered a severe heart attack, and was told by his doctor to give up smoking. The man swore that he would give up the habit, for without the oath he wasn't sure that he would be able to do it.

Before leaving "the old country" for the new world, worried parents were assured by their childrens' oaths that they would remain observant Jews. Those oaths have saved many immigrants and their families for Judaism.

There is also the case of the wealthy man who swore at the deadthbed of his brother that he would take good care of the widow and the orphans. That oath not only made the final moments of the dying man easier, but helped a destitute family through a critical period in their lives.

Now let us briefly review instances when it is wrong to make pledges that we do not have our minds set to keep. When a person is down and out, he will sometimes say, "If God will help me and I will make a go of my new enterprise, I'll do this and that." Yet you and I know people who have succeeded and did not keep their vows. This is particularly true in the case of illness. There is the classic story of a wealthy Jew in an East European shtetel who was known for his tightfistedness. When he became seriously ill and ran a high temperature the doctor said that if the man did not break out into a sweat within the next hours and thus reduce the fever, he would die. As was the custom in those days, a prominent person was summoned to the bedside of the dying man to make his last will and testament. "After I am gone," the sick man began, "give away one thousand rubles from my estate for the poor, five hundred rubles for the local Talmud Tora, five hundred rubles for the Home of the Aged." Thus he went on and on. Suddenly he wiped his brow and shouted, "Stop! Stop! I take it all back! Ich Schvitz! I am perspiring!"

In this country we refer to the marriage ceremony as "exchanging vows." We bind ourselves under the chupah for life. Both the chosson and the kalah pledge themselves not to look for someone else who may please them, but to do all in the power to please the one they have chosen. Unfortunately many married people do not continue to look upon marriage as a partnership but as an outright ownership. As the saying goes, "When people get married they say 'I do' and they 'don't.' "

When a child is born the custom is to make a misheberach. The parents pledge themselves legadlo letorah lechupah ulemaassim tovim, to make the child worthy of our tradition, teach him or her to be familiar with the precepts of the Torah, to grow up to marry a fine spouse, and to lead a life of maassim tovim, of good and meritorious deeds.

Need I point out that in many instances these vows are nullified by both sides? On the one hand, parents do not exert themselves sufficiently to raise their offspring properly. They do not provide an inspiring example of piety and generosity. Children will forget about their homework, but will never forget a broken pledge or an immoral act of their parents. On the other hand, children often react with utter disregard and contempt to the advice and guidance of their elders. Someone wrote a ditty about this cruel fact. "Roses are red, violets are blue, the ones I planted never grew." Long ago Isaiah put it even better. Banim gidalti veromanti vehem pasheu bee. "Children have I reared and raised and they have sinned against me" (Isaiah1:3).

A Bar Mitzvah ceremony is an occasion for a young adolescent to pledge to be a faithful member of his people and his faith. What is kaddish which is repeated at the fresh grave of a loved one if not a pledge to continue in the religion of Israel? Yahrzeit and yizkor —what are they if not occasions of dedication to the highest aspirations and noblest virtues of the neshamot of our dear ones? But alas, these resolutions are forgotten and the vows are nullified. As the pungent Yiddish saying goes— geshtorben, bagroben, fargessen —"Died, buried, forgotten."

Let us resolve to abide to the letter by a crucial verse in our sidrah: "If a man vows unto the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not profane his word. According to all that proceeds from his mouth he shall do" (Num. 30:3).

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