Thursday, July 21, 2011

Mattot

This week’s Torah portion is Mattot and begins with a discussion about vows and promises. “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” (Numbers 30:3) It should be noted that the Torah offers different laws about the vows made by women. I, however, read the opening verse as applying to both men and women.

Often we pledge to go on diets, exercise more, perhaps study more Torah, not yell at our children (or parents), or reconnect with friends. We have the best of intentions when we make these vows, yet we often find it difficult to fulfill these promises beyond their initial days or weeks. The summer is filled with the best of intended promises. We hear such words, “I have more time now so I will finally read that book I have sitting on my shelf.”

At the wedding ceremonies that fill the summer months, couples recite ancient vows affirming their newly claimed love. But how do they sustain the passion of that first moment throughout the years? How do we remain true to our words throughout the many trials and challenges that follow?

An eighteenth century Hasidic rabbi, Tzvi Hirsch, the Maggid of Voydislav, responds: “If a man makes a vow he will certainly not break his word, but merely keeping his word is not enough. He is commanded: ‘He must carry out all that has crossed his lips’—that he must fulfill the vow with same fervor as at the time that he took the vow. In most cases, when a person makes a vow he do so in a flush of enthusiasm, whereas the fulfillment of that vow is done without passion, as if he is forced to do so. The Torah therefore stresses: ‘You shall do—as you vowed.’"

This is the critical observation. We passionately affirm, “I promise to…” Yet when we go to fulfill such promises it feels as if our enthusiasm has been drained. It is all about obligation and no longer about celebration. It is easy to make promises—perhaps far too easy. But how do we hold ourselves to the words we speak? How do we guarantee the passion with which we first spoke the words will accompany the fulfillment of the promise? How do we fulfill our vows with enthusiasm and vigor?

Sometimes married couples ask me to perform a renewal of vows. To be honest it is my favorite ceremony at which to officiate. When a husband and wife, after being married for some fifty years, kiss again it confirms the insight of the great Hasidic master. Wedding celebrations are of course beautiful and grand. They are about the future and all its potential. They are about promises for the future.

A renewal of vows by contrast is about the fulfillment of those promises. Such ceremonies are the realization that we can indeed spend years filling our youthful promises with devotion and enthusiasm. May we find the passion to carry our vows through many years. May we discover the commitment to see many of our promises to fruition.

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