By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
I hadn’t seen my friend for quite some time, and we both were delighted when we ran into each other by chance that afternoon. We spent a few minutes catching up and found ourselves discussing mutual acquaintances. Pretty soon we were discussing Sam, a man of many fine qualities.
“Once Sam says something,” my pal remarked, “he never backs out or changes his mind. You can count on him to keep his word.”
Something deep inside of me spoke up. “Is it always a virtue to keep your word and never change your mind? Isn’t that a sign of a certain rigidity, which is not always beneficial, and may even sometimes be morally wrong?”
I am reminded of this week’s double Torah portion, Matot-Masei, and of its opening passages which discuss the binding nature of vows and promises, and the circumstances under which those verbal commitments can be annulled.
“When a man vows a vow…or swears 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” (Numbers 30:3).
The Torah, while fully supporting the binding quality of one’s promises, also recognizes that there are situations that call for the revocation of those promises. Times change, circumstances are altered, and a reassessment of past commitments is not only permitted but is to be commended. Blind obedience to one’s past vows can lead to disastrous consequences. Our sages recognize that every individual must have access to a wise man, a chacham, who can help him assess his verbal commitments, and, when justified, release him from those commitments.
The classic case of misguided adherence to one’s words is the story of Yiftach, narrated in the book of Judges chapter 11. Yiftach was a great military leader who, when he embarked upon a battle against the Ammonites, vowed that if God would grant him victory, he would offer “whatever comes out of the door of my house…as a burnt offering.” Tragically, it was his daughter, his only child, who came out to meet him. He felt bound by his words and “did to her as he vowed.”
Our Sages see his blind obedience to his own words as being a result of his ignorance. They do not commend his fidelity to his vow. Quite the contrary; our rabbis recognize the complexities of life and understand full well that situations that call for morality can be most ambiguous. In certain circumstances, a sense of being bound by one’s promises is an example of integrity and honesty of the highest order. But even one’s promises need to be assessed in the light of changing circumstances. When those circumstances demand a loosening of the bond of verbal commitment, our tradition knows of procedures whereby one can be released even from his most fervent oaths and vows.
The opening passages of this week’s Torah portion recognize this complexity. They teach that one must be careful never to profane or violate his words; and that one’s words need to be re-examined, and reassessed. And they teach that, under the guidance of a wise and pious chacham, the bonds of words can be undone.
The additional lesson here is of forgiveness. My vow to have nothing to do with you may have been based upon the factual consideration that your behavior was undesirable. But I must be ready to realize that you have changed and that now our relationship must change. When I realize that, I must re-examine my past promises and commitments and be ready to undo them. That is the underlying concept behind the procedure known as hatarat nedarim, the undoing of the bonds of words.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.