The Human Ingredient
Oaths and vows are very sacred things, so sacred that it is
unthinkable that someone would violate them. In fact, no matter how
skeptical and distrustful we may generally be, if we hear someone,
anyone, make a solemn vow by all that is holy, we tend to believe it.
But what if the one making the vow could rescind it at will? Would a
vow still have the same credibility? Obviously not. The force of a vow
derives from its permanence and inviolability. And yet, the Torah laws
regarding vows, about which we read in this week’s Torah portion,
feature a mechanism by which one can be released from a vow. Surely
then, this mechanism reveals a very fundamental flaw in the vow.
What is the mechanism? And what is the flaw?
They are as follows. If the one making the vow encounters an
unexpected situation in which the vow creates complications, it may be
possible to obtain a release. For instance, a person vows not to eat a
certain type of food and afterwards he discovers that just this food will
be served at his son’s wedding. In retrospect, had he known he would
not be able to eat at his own son’s wedding he would never have made
that vow in the first place. In this case, he must present his argument to
a rabbinical court, and if it is meets the specific criteria, the court can
release him from his vow.
What is the basis for this release mechanism? The Talmud derives
it from the verse, “Everything a person expresses in an oath.” It would
have been sufficient to say, “Everything expressed in an oath.” Why the
inclusion of the words “a person”? This seems to indicate that only
someone considered “a person” can make binding oaths and vows.
Oaths and vows that do not take future developments into consideration
are not valid. Why? Because they were made without the human
Let us reflect for a moment. What are we accustomed to thinking of
as the human ingredient? In what way does our society consider human
beings superior to animals? It is in our creativity, our intelligence, our
ability to think and reason. Homo sapiens. Thinking man. But the Torah
uses an altogether different criterion. “A person,” according to the
Torah, is someone who has foresight, who considers not only the
instant gratification of the here and now like an animal but also the
future ramifications of all his actions.
Why is this the ultimate human ingredient? Because what truly sets
a human being apart from an animal is his soul, the indestructible spark
of the divine that will continue to exist after the body perishes, that
draws its sustenance from the spiritual world rather than the physical.. A
person with foresight, therefore, realizes he cannot allow himself to be
distracted by the immediate gratification of his physical impulses. He
knows that he must use the short time allotted to him in this world to
accumulate merit which will stand him in eternal good stead in the next
world. This is the mark of a true human being.
A father was sitting on a park bench watching his young sons at
play. Nearby sat an old man.
The boys were exceedingly rough in their play, pushing and
grabbing things from each other, and the father looked on with concern.
“Are you worried about them?” asked the old man.
“A little,” replied the father. “But I have foresight. I came prepared
with paraphernalia from my medicine cabinet in case they get hurt.”
The old man laughed. “That’s foresight? Thinking of bringing
paraphernalia when you’re already standing at the door? If you really
had foresight you would have started years ago by bringing them up to
be more courteous and considerate of each other.”
In our own lives, we are all aware of the importance of preparing for
the future. But for which future are we preparing, the temporary future
we will encounter in a few years or the eternal future of our
indestructible souls? It is all good and well to make financial
investments that will secure our physical well-being when we grow old,
but it even more important to make spiritual investments that will secure
the well-being of our souls for all eternity.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.