AS GOOD AS HIS WORD
Rabbi David Walk
A few years ago, I had to give testimony in a court proceeding. The judge asked the clerk 'to swear me in' on the Bible of my choice, and I demurred. The judge was very considerate to my religious concerns, and immediately had me affirm that my testimony was the truth. When I told the story to my eighth grade students, one of them asked if this would lead to more lies in court. I smiled at her innocence, and explained that nowadays the oath doesn't prevent perjury. It's the fear of punishment, which cowers us into truthfulness. Sadly, there is no such fear in Washington. It's ironic that the city named after the 'Man who could not tell a lie' is the headquarters for fibs. But this modern cavalier attitude towards oath taking was not always true. Premodern people were truly in awe of oaths. And this was especially true of our Jewish ancestors. This week's Torah reading broaches the topic of oaths, and that's where I'm headed as well.
Oaths are such a big topic in our faith that not one, but two tractites of our Talmud discuss the issue. One is called Shavuot and the other is Nedarim. I don't want to get technical about the differences between the two, but generally we say nedarim are when a person prohibits or obligates an object or act, while shavuot are when the vow is on the person not the object or act. Although there is a lot more to be said about these statements, the easiest way to explain it is, that one vow is on the thing (cheftza) and the other is on the individual (gavra). But none of this is what I'd like to discuss this week.
Our parsha states, If a person makes a vow to the Lord or makes an oath to prohibit oneself, that person shall not violate one's word; according to whatever came out of one's mouth, a person shall do (Numbers 30:2). It seems that we have a mitzva from the Torah to make these declarations and then fulfill them. You might justifiably believe that the Torah is encouraging us to make and fulfill these sanctified statements. But here's the rub: The Sages are very much against it. In tractite Nedarim (22b) the Sages say that one who declares an oath has virtually built an illegal altar (bama), and if one fulfills the vow, it's as if a sacrifice has been offered upon it. But why do the Sages seem to compare this Torah mandated act to totally improper religious behavior?
The simplest and most popular approach is to ask, 'Didn't God give enough mitzvot?' I mean, isn't 613 a big enough number? And what would the pomegranates think? I'm sorry, but I don't find that approach compelling. The Sages themselves have added mitzvot.
The Kli Yakar (Rav Shlomo Efraim Luntzshitz) plays off an idea in the Talmud. The Sages chastise one who swears in anger, because that person has entered the realm of foolishness (Shavuot 26a). Rav Lunzshitz explains that the comparison with the offering on an illegal altar is the one who swore in anger, but carried through on the oath even after the rage subsided. The great 17