Thursday, September 27, 2012

Vows and Obligations – Kol Nidrei 2012-5773

Vows and Obligations – Kol Nidrei 2012-5773
Rabbi David Kaufman

Although we think of books by Dr. Seuss as “children’s literature,” almost all of his works have messages for readers of all ages.  In no story is this more true than in Horton Hatches the Egg. Just as Mayzie, the lazy bird, wishes for “someone to stay on her nest,” because she was “tired and bored,” Horton the Elephant—which is not a political reference—passes by. Horton is persuaded to take over for Mazie, who promises:

“I’ll hurry right back.  Why, I’ll never be missed.”
“Very well,” said the elephant, “since you insist.”

In summer, the task was easy. But eventually autumn passes, “And then came the Winter…the snow and the sleet! And icicles hung From his trunk and his feet.” 
But Horton doesn’t abandon Mayzie’s egg, repeating the refrain that runs through the story:

I meant what I said and I said what I meant
An elephant’s faithful one hundred per cent!

Spring brings more tribulations when Horton’s friends spot him sitting in the nest:

They taunted, they teased him, they yelled, “How Absurd!”
Old Horton the elephant thinks he’s a bird!

When his friends run away, poor “Horton was lonely. He wanted to play, but he sat on the egg and continued to say:”

I meant what I said and I said what I meant
An elephant’s faithful one hundred per cent!

Horton kept his promise, fulfilling the obligation that he elected to take on. By the closing lines of the story, Horton’s faithfulness is rewarded: When the egg hatches, the baby bird has a trunk and a tail!

Tonight, on this night when we offer the words of the Kol Nidrei, a prayer seeking forgiveness for promises we could not have kept and those we should not or cannot keep, I would like to speak with you about making promises and keeping obligations, about acting rashly, perhaps when emotions run high, and then about how to do better this year, how to set ourselves on a better path.

Vows and Obligations

The story of Horton Hatches the Egg, teaches us, using humor, about how difficult it is to fulfill our obligations and promises. We, like Mayzie the Bird or Horton the Elephant, make promises and take on obligations that may prove increasingly hard for us. Let us for a moment imagine ourselves, not as Mayzie, abandoning responsibility, but as Horton sitting on the nest. Our task may move from a symbolic summer, when doing the task was relatively easy, to winter with icicles hanging from our bodies, when keeping up the task is painful and we wonder if we can go on. Our friends may well come by and wish for us to break our vow, to join in their fun. They may even make fun of us or taunt us for refusing. Have you ever been called a “party pooper” or worse because you chose to be responsible? Many who have taken on responsibility have faced this at times.

This Summer, I spoke at Goldman Union Camp on Shabbat Matot-Massei. Matot-Massei, a combined Torah portion, includes a discussion of wiping out the Midianites, the vows of women, the death of Aaron and the creation of cities of refuge. It is not easy to figure out what to talk about with a congregation full of children. Many rabbis in the past have picked something else entirely to talk about.

I chose to work with the Torah portion and spoke of a connection between the Torah’s concern about vows and the cities of refuge, both of which to some extent have to do with acting rashly and perhaps emotionally.

Our people in times not too distant believed that God would enforce vows. If you swore an oath or made a vow to God, you were expected to keep your promise or God would punish you. That is why people were asked to make vows in the first place. In fact, Jews believed that God might well punish not only us individually, but our entire family or the entirety of the Jewish people if we failed to uphold our promises. Vows were a big deal.

If for example we would make a pledge to God, such as “God, if I get an A on this exam, I will say the Shema three times a day for a month and not watch any TV,” or “If the diagnosis isn’t so bad, I will never eat [fill in the blank with your favorite food] again,” the tradition tells us that we need to follow through or there will be consequences. Sometimes, we say things in an emotional state that we really do not want to do or should not do. The consequences that we have proposed may be things that we would never wish to happen or perhaps cannot allow to happen. For example,

If you do this again, I swear I will [fill in the blank with some horrendous consequence]. I will kill you, never speak with you again, etc…

If only I could meet this movie star or rock star, I would [fill in the blank with something very inappropriate or harmful].  Or---
I would cut off my arm, if I could….

In ancient times, people did not simply make vows that they had no intention of keeping. Vows were not expressions of desire or mere reflections of our emotional state, they were serious agreements not to be violated. The prophets in fact regularly reminded the people of the oaths that they and their ancestors swore to God to keep. If you ever get a chance to read the Book of Judges, you will find all kinds of stories about vows and the consequences of breaking them.

The most famous story is of Samson who was most likely a Nazirite hero. The Nazirites were people who swore an oath not to allow their hair to be cut except in a certain ritual fashion. The hair was considered holy and used for Temple purposes. Delilah of course ends up cutting Samson’s hair, breaking his vow, and his super strength, his power, suddenly vanishes. The story is about what happens when this vow in the service of God is broken, even unintentionally. Everything changes.

Sometimes, we swear oaths simply out of ignorance. We don’t have all of the necessary information, and we make pledges that we never should have made, nor would have made had we known more.

In this vein, there is a second story from the Book of Judges, that of Jephthah, a leader of Gilead, who swore that if he was victorious in battle, he would offer up to God as a sacrifice the first thing that came out to greet him when he returned home. The supposition is that he intended for it to be an animal, but it turned out to be his daughter. The story tells us that the daughters of Israel went out into the wilderness to mourn for the young woman every year, indicating that Jephthah kept his vow.

This tale, like many other tales of morality in our tradition, is one that almost certainly did not happen; it is probably a mythic tale, but it is also a story that stresses the importance of keeping vows. The belief was that had Jephthah failed to go through with his vow, the entire people might suffer. Remember also that these stories about vows are in the context of discussion of the covenant, the vows, between God and the Children of Israel. Not only the Torah, but the prophets, and many of the other works in the Tanakh, Jewish scriptures, discuss the necessity of the Jewish people upholding their vows and meeting their obligations.

But Jewish history puts vows into a different context in addition to this one. Over the past 2,000 years, we Jews were regularly forced to make vows with which we did not agree by people who also believed that God would enforce consequences if those vows were broken. We were forced to pledge our belief in other faiths, ones in which we did not believe, or we were compelled to break oaths we meant to keep because of threats against our lives. Because breaking oaths is not a minor thing in our tradition, the rabbis created the Kol Nidrei prayer in the hope of avoiding the consequences of breaking oaths to God, even ones made under duress. As our prayerbook states:

Kol Nidrei is the prayer of people not free to make their own decisions, people forced to say what they do not mean.

Yet the prayerbook also concludes its introduction to the section containing the Kol Nidrei prayer with these words:

For what we have done, for what we may yet do, we ask pardon; for rash words, broken pledges, insincere assurances, and foolish promises, may we find forgiveness.
We know that it is hardly only when forced that we make promises that we should not or cannot keep, nor is it only when forced that we make rash decisions, nor is it only when forced that we do not fulfill obligations and commitments that we have made.


In the Torah portion of which I spoke this Summer, we also read about the cities of refuge. The concept of refuge cities was intended to provide a way to prevent angry mobs from taking justice into their own hands. We do not know if these cities ever functioned, but the idea makes some sense. Fleeing to such cities could have allowed time for emotions to decrease and the truth about the events that transpired to come forth. Making emotionally based decisions can multiply our problems rather than helping to solve or heal them. We need time to think and reflect in order to make the right decisions. We cannot let our emotions drive us to act without thinking things through.

Too often, our emotions may drive us to speak without caring about whether or not what we speak is the truth or about the consequences of our words. The traditional Yom Kippur story about lashon hara, saying bad things about others, reminds us that words are like feathers spilled from a pillow into the wind, easy to release but often impossible to retract.

In an emotional state, we are much more prone to perceive things incorrectly, to say things that we should not say, and to act rashly. This is not merely true when we are angry or full of hatred, it can be when we are sad, in love, full of pride, overjoyed or full of any other emotion.

How do we avoid acting rashly?

The prophet Micah teaches us:

God has showed you, what is good. And what does Adonai require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

We need to be merciful, not merely just. Being merciful means having a disposition to forgiveness. On balance, just as we wish for God and for others to be merciful and not vengeful in regard to wrongs that we have done, so must we tend toward mercy ourselves in our relations with others.

We know that we can be wrong in our judgments. At times, we may feel certain that we are in the right and offer condemnation of others only to find out that our understanding was terribly wrong. Some of us have found ourselves on the wrong side of this very type of action. We need to be mindful of our potential to err when we get angry and wish to act upon that anger, so that we do not do or say something that we could regret later. We need to be humble.

That is not easy for a people too often willing to sit in the dark. We are a people whose tradition is full of rash responses, responses made full of emotion. We have made promises without thinking. We have reacted violently against the very concept of assimilating practices or beliefs different from our own, often without understanding them. We have acted to avenge perceived harm done against us without knowing any, much less all of the facts. We have done these things in the past as a people. We often still do them in our own individual lives today.

Tomorrow afternoon, during the concluding service, I will recite these all too appropriate words as I stand before the open ark:

Called to a life of righteousness, we rebel: arrogance possesses us. The passions that rage within us drown out the voice of conscience: good and evil, virtue and vice, love and hate contend for the mastery of our lives. Again and again we complain of the struggle, forgetting that the power to choose is the glory and greatness of our being.

Yes, we have a tendency to speak and act rashly. Yes, we are people full of emotion. Yet, we have the power to choose.

The prophet Micah warns us. Be humble. Let us not expect perfection of others when we know that we ourselves are not perfect. Let us strive to be better people and our world will become a better place for us all.

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good, healthy, and happy year. Good yom tov.

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