If a man vow a vow to the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth (Tanakh, Bamidbar 30: 1-3)
This week’s Parasha opens with a discussion on Vows. There is a striking difference between a vow made by a man and a vow made by a woman. A man’s vow is not determined by any disapproval from his family, on the other hand a woman’s vow can only be valid if the head of the family (the father if unmarried and the husband if married) approves it or has not expressed any disapproval. Despite the differences - which many women of this time would disagree (which I also would disagree upon) - it implies the importance of vows. Vows are not meant to be broken but to be fulfilled. Vows are powerful, it is not a “noun” but a “verb” it is meant to be acted upon. I would not go as much as differentiating a vow from an oath not because it’s insignificant rather it requires a deep knowledge of the Hebrew language which I lack.
Why do we make vows? What is the importance of vows? But first let me start with a more specific kind of vow. Vows made by religious (poverty, chastity, obedience and the charism) is defined by Malaviaratchi as a free and deliberate promise…they bind us in conscience and must be lived in a spirit of generosity and love. This may give us a good theological definition of religious vows but what we are after is vows in general. However, this can be a springboard for understanding vows in general. As mentioned, vows are free and deliberate. We do not vow ourselves to a certain obligation without our willing it. It always comes from the heart of the person who makes it. Malaviaratchi ends his statement with stating that living the vow in spirit of generosity and love. He wanted to show that to live a vow is living it fully both in mind and action. Here we see the power of a vow. If we make a vow, it becomes the framework of our life. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth as God commanded. But why is it so? In the later part of the Parasha we see that Reubenites and Gadites requested Moses that they settle in the land of Jazer and of Gilead. Although Moses disagreed at first he later agreed with the request “if” their tribes would help them fight the settling tribes beyond the Jordan River. The ‘vow’ made by the two tribes is very significant in our understanding of the vows. First, is the responsibility we have and the consequences of not fulfilling our responsibility. In the case of Gadites and Reubenites is their responsibility to fight side by side with their fellow Israelites, their destiny to be with them, and the consequences they will meet if they fail to do so. The beginning and the later part of the Parasha are juxtaposed for they complement each other. A vow of course, any vow, is about fostering self-fortitude and overcoming fear or apathy in the face of a serious challenge. Not only thus it states our promise but it gives us the hope to pursue a certain obligation. How? A vow to God can spur a person onwards by shoring up a shaky spirit and filling it with renewed inspiration, by emphasizing the hope and trust that God will assist him when no effort is spared on his part.
In the end of their journey everyone may want to just stop and not finish the race, or accept the face mediocrity to just stay in their comfort zone. They may want to say “Why add another burden to us? We have all those lands why not settle here?” and not look forward to what has been promised to them. However, the Reubenites and Gadites still went on the journey although they choose to settle in those lands outside the Promised Land. They choose to fight with their fellow Israelites. Like them many of us toward the end of a race may say why we need to cross? Why do I need to keep on studying? Why do I need to fight for my fellow men? Why do I voice out for the poor? We may not want to cross the Jordan Rive. We don’t want another obstacle because staying in our comfort zones means being safe and unharmed. The Gadites and Reubenites may not want to fight for their fellow Israelites but it was their vow that let them continue on with their journey. We may sometimes feel that what we did is enough and what we will do will not matter anymore. But a vow defines not only our present but our future, that every time we feel like stopping and ending the fight, the vows we have tells us, there is more and the fight will go on. Our vows becomes our identity, our paradigm, it becomes our strength. Our vows becomes the bridge over troubled waters.
The vow becomes our life. Our vow is only fulfilled if we live it. Our vows meant for us to look forward to what God had promised to us, that we shall journey to let God fulfill his love for us. The Israelites went on a long strenuous sojourn, like all of us; we all have a long strenuous journey, and yet we keep on fighting, we keep on dreaming, we keep on learning, we keep on deepening our faith, there is no such thing as ‘enough’ –I have fought enough, I have learned enough - we will fight until the last drop of blood comes out of our body, until our last breath, until death we will journey. This is our vow.