From Rabbinic Intern, Greg Metzger
Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying: This is what the Lord has commanded: If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath imposing some prohibition upon himself, he shall not break his word, but he must do all that he has said. (Num. 30:2 – 3)
A “vow” is an obligation that a person takes on freely to either perform some action, or to avoid doing something, or to forbid oneself from things that are PERMISSIBLE.
Vows typically take two distinct forms:
a. vows of generosity: to make a donation to the Temple or to give charity to the poor, or for any other good purpose – over and above Torah requirements
b. vows of denial: taking on extra strictures and for bidding oneself from things that are permissible.
Our sages expressed opposition to vows. They said: “One who vows is one who has placed a collar around the neck”. Rav Dimi said, “anyone who makes about, and even one who keeps it, is called a sinner.” (Nedarim 77b).
Our sages believed that the Torah was complete. The 613 Mitzvot contain sufficient demands of generosity in an appropriate amount of restriction. There are 248 “restrictions” corresponding to 248 body parts – to remind us that unkosher acts and unkosher items are harmful to our mind, body and spirit. There are 365 positive “offerings” corresponding to 365 days of the year – reminding us that by giving of ourselves and our property we bring Holiness into the “ordinary everyday” every day.
Although the word “sinner” is rather harsh, I think the sage’s comments are instructive. In seeking spirituality and a connection with God and ourselves, we often accentuate one practice over another. We sometimes even completely exclude other “standard” practices to allow us time to focus on those we like, or those with which we are more comfortable.
It’s the same with diets, exercise plans, Self-help programs and programs for financial and career success. We tend to want to make these “our own.” Eating more of some foods and excluding others that are permissible. Doubling up on one set of exercises while completely omitting another suggested. Some love praying in community, but don’t see much point in offering the blessings over food and daily life when they are alone. Some favor meditation over acts of loving-kindness; while others favor charity over prayer or study. This may seem great as it feeds our sense of self and individuality. However, it denies us the results that come from following the “Whole Program”.
Our sages believe this is most true with Torah. Perhaps their use of the word “sin” comes from their conviction that the Torah represents a perfect balance. Anyone who seeks to offer more than the Torah, or to restrict further than the Torah would thereby be an idolater – one who believes their ideas are greater than God.
Our Rabbi is consistent in her teaching: we should seek a balance. Not an exclusion of one over the other. May we be blessed this week with the ability to follow our understanding of Torah. May we be blessed to allow ourselves the full measure of the permissible, both in our offerings and are restrictions.
May our actions and restrictions bring harmony to our mind, body and spirit. And may this blessing bring peace and wholeness to the world.
About Rabbi Miriam
Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell MHL, M.Ed., has served as our religious and spiritual leader at Ahavat Torah Congregation and helped it grow since it was founded in 2003.