Parshat Matot begins with vows and oaths. Although in English a "vow" and an "oath" are virtually synonymous, in Hebrew – neder and shvu'a – are quite different. The shvu'a ("oath"), once made, engenders a responsibility on the part of the individual who utters it. The neder ("vow") however, has a strange kind of power as we shall see.1
And Moses told the people of Israel according to all that the Lord commanded Moses. And Moses spoke to the chiefs of the tribes concerning the people of Israel, saying, "This is the thing which the Lord has commanded. If a man vows a vow to the Lord, 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 30:1-3)
This is not the first time that the idea of a neder appears in the Torah. Vows are found both in narrative and in legal sections.2 The first person who utters a vow is Jacob. When he is on the run from his bloodthirsty brother Esau, he spends a memorable night under the stars. Jacob has a dream, a vision of angels ascending and descending.
And Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not." And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is no other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon its top. And he called the name of that place Beit-El; but the name of that city was called Luz at the first. And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and garment to put on, so that I come back to my father's house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God. And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house; and of all that you shall give me I will surely give the tenth to you." (Genesis 28:16-22)
Jacob, overwhelmed by the awe of the place, seems to strike a deal with God. In his vow, Jacob asks for the bare necessities and to return home unscathed. In turn, he will build a house for God and separate a tenth of his income for holy causes.
Jacob, overwhelmed by the awe of the place, seems to strike a deal with God.
The Midrash ascribes particular significance to the fact that it is Jacob who utters the first vow in the Torah. Rather than an incidental fact, this is part of the essence of the vow. There is a tradition, attributed to Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin, that when an idea appears in the Torah numerous times, the first time is of particular significance in determining the essence of the concept.3
Jacob was the first to utter a vow, therefore when one vows he should refer the vow to him. Rabbi Abbahu said: "It is written, How he swore unto the Lord, and vowed unto the Mighty One of Jacob(Psalms 132:2). It does not say, the Mighty One of Abraham or Isaac, but unto the Mighty One of Jacob, thus referring the vow to him who was the first to give it utterance." (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 70:1)
The reference is to Psalms and David's vow. When David uttered a vow, he thought of Jacob, because Jacob (the first person to make a vow) should be remembered when vows are said.
THE MODEL VOW
This was how David made a vow:
"Lord, remember in David's favor all his afflictions. How he swore to the Lord, and vowed to the mighty God of Jacob. Surely I will not come into the tent of my house, nor get into my bed. I will not give sleep to my eyes, or slumber to my eyelids. Until I find out a place for the Lord, a habitation for the mighty One of Jacob." (Psalms 132:1-5)
The Midrash also notes that the impetus of Jacob's vow should serve as a sign for future generations. As Jacob vowed, so should others. When a person is in distress, as Jacob was when he turned to God in prayer, he or she should imitate Jacob:
And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, etc. (Genesis 28:20). It is written,I will perform unto You my vows, which my lips have uttered, and my mouth has spoken, when I was in distress (Psalms 66:13). Rabbi Isaac the Babylonian said: "It is meritorious to vow [in a time of trouble]." (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 70:1)
THE DANGER OF VOWS
Although these references seem to indicate that the sages regarded the vow as a positive religious expression, elsewhere the Talmud warns that a vow is a dangerous tool and is best avoided. The particular formulation of the Talmud is quite challenging, for it compares the vow-maker with an idolater – even if he succeeds in keeping his word!
Rabbi Nathan said, "If a man makes a vow it is as if he has built abama - a personal altar. And, if he fulfils it, it is as if he has offered up a sacrifice upon it." (Yevamot 109b)
[Rashi explains: This was said at the time when bamot were prohibited. Building a bama was a sin. And if the man who made a vow acted further on this "sin," then he broke two prohibitions. It would have been better if he had gone to a wise man and had the vow annulled].
Even Jacob, the archetypical "vow-maker" suffered greatly due to his vow.
Four made vows; two vowed and lost thereby, and two vowed and profited. Yisrael and Hannah profited; Yiftah vowed and lost, Jacob vowed and lost. (Midrash Rabbah Genesis 70:3)
While Jacob's suffering is not immediately apparent in the text of the Torah, analysis of the text through the eyes of the Midrashic tradition clearly shows the negative consequences of Jacob's vow.
Jacob said that if God would care for him he would build a "house for God" upon his return. However, Jacob returns to Israel, the land of his fathers, and does not keep his word. Then, God appears to him and enjoins him to fulfill his vow:
And God said to Jacob, "Arise, go up to Beit-El, and live there; and make there an altar to God, who appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esau your brother." Then Jacob said to his household, and to all who were with him, "Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments. And let us arise, and go up to Beit-El; and I will make there an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went" ... And he built there an altar, and called the place El-Beit-El, because there God appeared to him, when he fled from the face of his brother. (Genesis 35:1-3,7)
Immediately prior to this revelation is the rape of Dina. Immediately following this revelation is the death of Rachel.
The Midrash draws our attention to the fact that contextually, the command to return to Beit El is sandwiched by these two tragic occurrences. The implication is that both these and other tragedies could have been avoided had Jacob kept his vow:
Said Rabbi Yannai: "If a man delays to fulfil his vow, his ledger is examined ... The proof is this: Because our father Jacob delayed the fulfillment of his vow, his ledger was examined, And God said to Jacob: 'Arise, go up to Beit-El, etc." (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 81:1)
When his ledger was examined, it was found lacking:
Rabbi Shmuel ben Nachman said: "If any one makes a vow and delays to fulfil it, he will ultimately be involved in the worship of idols, in sexual immorality, in bloodshed, in slander. From whom can you infer all this? From Jacob, who, because he had made a vow and delayed to fulfil it, came to be involved in all these. Whence do we know this of idol-worship? Then Jacob said unto his household ... 'Put away the strange gods' (Genesis 35:2). Whence of sexual immorality? From Dina, of whom it says, And Dina ... went out, etc. (Genesis 34:1). Whence of bloodshed? From the fact that it says, And it came to pass on the third day, when they were in pain, that the two sons of Jacob ... slew all the males (Genesis34:25). Whence of slander? From the fact that it says, And he heard the words of Laban's sons, saying: 'Jacob has taken away all that was our father's' (Genesis 31:1). Our Rabbis say that if anyone vows and delays to fulfil it, he will bury his wife. This is proved by the text, And as for me, when I came from Paddan, Rachel died unto me." (Genesis 48:7). (Midrash Rabbah - Numbers 37:1)
The Zohar expresses the same idea:
Observe that the accuser attacks a man only in time of danger; and so it was on account of Jacob having delayed to fulfil his vows which he had made to God ... Hence we are taught that a man should "never open his mouth for the Satan", inasmuch as the latter is sure to take hold of his utterance and use it to bring accusations on high and below. All the more so if it is the utterance of a righteous man or a sage. (Zohar Genesis 174b-175a)
If the result of the vow was so negative, why would David turn toward Jacob as inspiration for his own vow? Why would vows be a part of religious consciousness and expression?
Numerous sources, while hesitant at best because of the possibility of a failed vow, see the successful vow as a great religious endeavor. Vows may be seen as a double-edged sword:
Rabbi Shmuel son of Rabbi Yitzchak said: "If any one makes a vow and pays it, he has reward for the vow and for the payment, as it says: 'Vow, and pay unto the Lord your God.' While if anyone vows and delays to fulfil it, he brings death upon himself; as it is written,For the Lord thy God will surely require it of you (Deut. 23:22), which means: It will be exacted of "you" not of your wealth. (Midrash Rabbah - Leviticus 37:1)
While the implications and ramifications of vows have become clear, the essence of the vow still remains somewhat elusive. Therefore, let us return to this first vow taken by Jacob.
The content of his vow was the construction of a House of God. Jacob wished to create a home where the Divine presence could rest. This is directly related to his prophetic dream -- Jacob witnessed a ladder reaching up toward heaven and saw that the ladder was a spiritual conduit. He perceived the possibility of bringing spirituality down to earth. This is what Jacob verbalizes upon awakening:
And Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not." And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is no other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." (Genesis 28:16-17)
The realization that this was a house of God inspired Jacob to build a more permanent house upon his return. Jacob's vow becomes clear:
"And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that you shall give me, I will surely give the tenth to you."(Genesis 28:22)
This, then, is the essence of the vow -- the dedication of something to God, the separating of a mundane object and imbuing it with sanctity.
THE VOW AS "ABODE"
The very word neder has been translated by Rabbeu Bachya as being derived etymologically from the root letters dalet-raish, spelling dira which means "abode." A neder is the process of building an abode for God, and therefore, a way of bringing more holiness into this world.4
This explains the passage in Psalms cited above:
Lord, remember in David's favor all his afflictions. How he swore to the Lord, and vowed to the mighty God of Jacob. Surely I will not come into the tent of my house, nor get into my bed. I will not give sleep to my eyes, or slumber to my eyelids. Until I find out a place for the Lord, a habitation for the mighty One of Jacob.
David's concern was identical with that of Jacob, therefore he made a vow and referred to Jacob. David, too, was concerned with building a place for theShechina, God's Presence, to dwell. However, David expressed a profound wish that he would not rest in his own house until this was accomplished, and a House of God was built. We see clearly that David was inspired by Jacob on the one hand, while on the other hand has learned the lesson of tarrying in the quest to fulfill the vow.5
Jacob's desire to build a "house" for the Shechina resulted in a reciprocal gesture on the part of God.
Rabbi Yehudah said: "The Holy One gave two vows to Jacob, 1) that He Himself would go down and stay with him in exile, and 2) that He would let him come out of his grave to behold the joy of the holy host of celestial beings who would dwell with his children in their captivity. (Zohar Exodus 16b)
Because Jacob made a vow and attempted to make a home for the Shechina in this world, God promises that even in the future, when Jacob's descendents fail and the house of God is destroyed, the Shechina, once brought down, will remain with the people.
Rabbi Natan says: "Beloved are Israel, for the Shechina was with them wherever they were exiled. When they went as exiles to Egypt the Shechina was with them ... When they went as exiles to Babylon, the Shechina was with them, as it says, 'For your sake I was sent to Babylon ... When they went as exiles to Elam, theShechina was with them ... When they went as exiles to Edom theShechina was with them ... Even if they are dispersed theShechina is also with them ... (Midrash Rabbah - Numbers 7:10)
This concept of the Shechina accompanying the Jews through all their exiles, along the circuitous path of Jewish history, may be discerned in the verse which describes the obligation to build the Sanctuary:
And let them make me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.(Exodus 25:8)
If the Jews build a Sanctuary, God says that He will in turn dwell among the people. The power of building the Sanctuary is so profound that it causes theShechina to remain in this world even when the sanctuary is destroyed.
Lying under the stars, Jacob saw a ladder to heaven
Jacob, lying under the stars, saw this powerful image – a ladder to heaven, a conduit to bring holiness down to earth. He decided that he must institutionalize this power, and he did so in two ways. One was by making a vow; the other was the content of the vow. God, in turn, made a vow of His own which guaranteed that the Shechina would remain on earth. Therefore, when the children of Jacob went down to Egypt, before the Mishkan was built, the Shechina went into exile with them.
Rachel, who died as a result of Jacob's vow, was the unwitting victim. She was buried on the side of the road. When the Jews were carried off into exile for causing the Shechina to be expelled, they passed by her grave, and Rachel shed tears for her children:
Thus says the Lord, "A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping -- Rachel weeping for her children and refused to be comforted regarding her children, because they were gone." Thus says the Lord, "Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your actions," says the Lord, and they shall return from the land of the enemy. "And there is hope for your future," says the Lord, "that your children shall come again to their own border." (Jeremiah 31:14-16)
Thus the prophet promises that the day will come when the children will all return triumphantly, together with the Shechina. They will then stop at Rachel's grave and shed tears:
And Jacob set up a pillar upon her [Rachel's] grave ... Rabbi Yehudah said: "It means, until the day when the Shechina will return with the exiles of Israel to that spot, as it is written: 'And there is hope for your future,' says the Lord, 'that your children shall come again to their own border' (Jeremiah 31:17). This is the oath which God swore unto her. The children of Israel are destined, when they return from exile, to stop at Rachel's grave and weep there as she wept over Israel's exile. It is thus written:They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them (Ibid. 9). Also: for there is a reward for your actions, (Ibid. 16). And at that time Rachel, who lies on the way, will rejoice with Israel and with the Shechina." (Zohar, Genesis, Page 175b)
On that day the tears will be tears of joy as all the Children of Israel return home, and as the Shechina returns to her abode, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. On that day the vows of God and Jacob will be fulfilled – forever.
- See Rabenu Bachye Numbers 30:3 and notes cited. (return to text)
- Genesis 28:20, 31:13; Leviticus 7:16, 22:21, 27:2; Numbers 6:2,5, 15:3,8, 21:2.(return to text)
- See Or Gedalyahu Parshat Mattot. (return to text)
- Rabenu Bachye Numbers 30:3. (return to text)
- See Sfat Emet Mattot 5760, where this idea is presented. (return to text)