"And Moses spoke unto the heads of the tribes... When a man voweth a vow unto the Lord..." (Numbers 30:2)
The beginning of this portion raises the issue of vows, and differentiates between a man's vow and a woman's vow, which you would think would be sufficient controversy. This midrash, however, takes a look at what is required in order to make a vow at all, and then draws some interesting conclusions that have woven their way into many of our customs of speech. And, finally, it prescribes a practice and proscribes its opposite, the forbidden side of which has (of course!) found its way into deeply spiritual practice. So, let's go!
The first thing to remember is what a "vow" means in this context. A vow is something one promises to do, using the Tetragrammaton - the four-letter name of G!d. The major (and included) variation of this vow is when one vows that something is true, calling on G!d as witness to the truth of that statement.
Now we're ready for the midrash - listen!
Hence it is written, And wilt swear: As the Lord liveth in truth, in justice, and in righteousness (Jer. 4:2). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: 'Do not imagine that you are permitted to swear by My name even in truth. You are not allowed to swear by My name unless you possess all the following attributes.'
(1) Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God (Deut. 10:20), implying that you must be like those who were called God-fearing men, namely Abraham, Job, and Joseph.
(2) Him shalt thou serve (Deut. 10:20); that is to say, if you concentrate your attention upon the Torah and the performance of precepts, having no other work.
(3) And to Him shalt thou cleave (ib.). But can a man cleave to the Shechinah? Is it not already stated, For the Lord thy God is a devouring fire (ib. 4:24)? Yes, but it serves to inform you that if a man, marrying his daughter to a disciple who studies the Scripture and the Mishnah, engages in commerce and allows him to benefit from his wealth, such is the man of whom it says, And to Him shalt thou cleave.
If you possess all these attributes you are permitted to swear, but if not you are not permitted to swear.
A story is told of King Jannai who owned two thousand towns, and they were all destroyed on account of true oaths. How? A man would say to his friend: 'On my oath, I shall go and eat such-and-such a food at such-and-such a place. And I shall drink such-and-such a drink at such-and-such a place!' They would go and fulfill their oath and would be destroyed (for swearing to trifles). If this is the fate of one who swears in truth, how much more so of one who swears to a falsehood.
Midrash Rabbah - Numbers XXII:1
What a tremendous value is placed on our "word" - our oath! The value is so strong that many build fences around this highly unlikely event - promising in the name of the Eternal One - by qualifying everything promised with phrases like "G!d-willing," or the acronym "iyH" (im yirtzeh Hashem, if it is G!d's will).
The rationale here is two-fold: first, by making such a vow, we are both professing a connection to the Eternal One that would validate our statement, and also putting the Holy One's reputation at stake as a result of our actions. No wonder the Sages were more than wary of such an action!
Their criteria for even considering making a vow are quite high: we must fear, serve, and "cleave" to G!d with every breath - and who among us can achieve such closeness? Only the three patriarchs, it would seem - just in case anyone was starting to feel a little self-confident.
But then they take it even further, and say that one should never make a vow at all, for if it is trivial, the triviality of what we place between us and the Eternal One will be our demise. So, in the words of Seinfeld:
No vows for you!
There is a spiritual practice of making vows - small but non-trivial - as a way of "cleaving" closer to G!d. As M' Yitzhak Buxbaum teaches,
A vow is a promise to God to do something specific for His sake, and it is a very effective way to lift yourself up spiritually and to insert discipline into your religious life. God has given us the power, by our spoken vow, to obligate ourselves like at Mount Sinai. For when you make a vow, a solemn promise to God that you will do something, you are obligated equally as with the commandments given at Mount Sinai.
Jewish Spiritual Practices, 1990, p. 290
He also provides guidelines and sources for such a practice, of which Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was an avid proponent.
Just imagine: what would it be like to make a small but meaningful promise to do something with God in mind - and put yourself entirely on the line for it? How wonderful it could be to take this matter seriously! For the truly dedicated to this practice, a qualifying clause is often inserted into the vow, such as "I vow to devote my best efforts to... provided that nothing occurs which, had I known about it prior to making this vow, I would not have made this vow."
Yes, it can sound like an "easy out," but then, one doesn't undertake such a practice lightly, so the qualifications are every bit as serious.
Consider, then, what can be gained from this decidedly controversial practice, and whether it would augment or diminish your own spiritual path. If you decide to try it, please let me know your experiences!
May we all find meaningful ways to cleave to the Eternal One.