This week’s Torah portion opens with a discussion of the annulment of vows and oaths, something which in our world could seem antiquated. We recognise the power of words to shape reality, we understand the ways in which language can hurt or lift up others, and with the internet and social media we have seen over and over the ways that our words can affect the world. But when it comes to the idea of vows and oaths, we can relegate them to the annuls of history, a quirky part of Jewish tradition and consider that our words in that context are not so significant. But Judaism takes our words seriously, if we make a promise, we are committed to fulfil it and if we don’t, it is a grave matter indeed. There are whole tractates of the Talmud devoted to the annulment of vows and promises and some traditional people, when they are making any kind of promise, big or small, will add “bli neder” “without obligation,” to ensure that they don’t step over the line and suffer the dire consequences meted out by the tradition for not fulfilling a promise we have made.
Every Yom Kippur, we recite the words of Kol Nidrei, the prayer where we annul all the vows we may have made during the year that we did not fulfil, whether by design or omission. This prayer was written and inserted into the liturgy at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews were forced to convert and declare allegiance to the Catholic Church, or be expelled or worse, lose their lives. This led to a community of secret Jews, Jews who outwardly made oaths and lived as Christians, whilst holding their Judaism still in their hearts and at great risk to themselves, attempting to practice their traditions in secret. My family was one of those and on Sunday we are having a conversation with our congregant and author Tim Ellis who has written about one of the most prominent secret Jews, Juan Luis Vives, and the struggles he had within himself, as he lived a double life as the Catholic tutor to King Henry VIII daughter whilst holding onto his Judaism deep inside. These Jews were tormented within because they had made vows and oaths knowing that they were not doing so from a place of honesty. They struggled with the duplicity with which they were forced to live, and the kol nidrei prayer enabled them to find some peace with making a declaration of faith to another religion.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his commentary on this parasha has a wonderful insight into why we Jews hold vows and oaths to be so important. He writes: “The Israelites were nearing the land. They were about to construct a society unlike any other. It was to be a free society based on a covenant between the people and God. The rule of law was to be secured not by the use of force but by people honouring their moral commitments, their voluntary undertaking to God that what He commanded, they would do.
A covenantal society is one in which words are holy, sacrosanct. This is the principle at the heart of Judaism as a code of collective freedom, a constitution of liberty.”
Oaths and vows were at the heart of the new society, it could only function with the trust which comes from honouring ones’ word and committing to the foundational principles of the community. Without that, the covenantal society crumbles. Our words have power, our promises and oaths are at the heart of who we are. God created the world with words, and we sustain or destroy that creation in the same way. May we always be cognizant of the power of language and use our words to bring wholeness and holiness. Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio