All our vows: on making promises, seeking justice, and taking refuge

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This week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei, opens with instructions concerning vows. Torah’s not just talking about little promises; it’s talking about swearing, as in “I swear to God” — or “I swear by God.” Torah takes oaths like these very seriously. So does Jewish tradition writ large. In Hebrew, they’re most often called nedarim and shavuot. If those words don’t ring a bell, try hearing them this way: “Kol nidre, v’esarei, v’charamei, v’konamei, v’chinuyei, v’kinusei, u-shavuot…” I don’t know about you, but when I sing the first line of Kol Nidre I quake in my sandals. I feel like: oh God it can’t possibly be time for that yet.

I’m not ready to face the end of summer. (Can’t we have another month of July before we move on to August?) I’m not ready to face the Days of Awe and all that they ask of me, not just as a rabbi but as a human being. I’m not ready to face everything I need to repair in my life or in the world. I’m not ready to face the ways in which I’ve inevitably fallen short. Well: ready or not, here it comes. Tisha b’Av is next weekend, and that spiritual low point places us firmly on the onramp to the Days of Awe. This week’s verses about vows and oaths come eight weeks before the new year. The time for taking stock is on its way.

So I read this week’s Torah portion, which opens with verses about making vows. And then I turned to the Sfat Emet, the Hasidic master Yehuda Lieb Alter of Ger, whose writings I’m studying this year with my Bayit hevre. The Sfat Emet cites the prophet Jeremiah, “You shall swear by the living God in truth, in justice, and in righteousness.” And then he explains that these three qualities of truth, justice, and righteousness map to the three ways we are instructed (in Torah / in the V’ahavta) to love God: “with all [our] hearts, with all [our] souls, and with all [our] being.” 

The Sfat Emet looks at these two triplets — truth / justice / righteousness, and hearts / souls / being — and connects them. He links “truth” with our souls, the life-force that animates us. He links “justice” with our hearts, because the heart needs justice in order to incline in the right way. He links “righteousness” with our very being, as though to remind us that we’re called to embody righteousness in all that we are. And then he says that in order to truly receive words of Torah, we need to seek to heal or restore our whole selves, body and soul. I want to unpack that a little bit, because there’s something beautiful here.

When the Sfat Emet talks about receiving Torah, he’s talking about something beyond just hearing or reading the words of our sacred text. L’kabel, “to receive,” isn’t passive. It’s a whole-self spiritual practice of receptivity to the flow of blessing and wisdom from on high. (It’s the root of the word “kabbalah.”) He’s talking about taking the words into ourselves, taking them on, taking them in, being transformed by them. So that when we say the shema, we’re not just singing a nice song: we’re experiencing fundamental oneness. So that when we say the v’ahavta, we’re embodying love with all that we are.

And in order to do that, we need restoration of our whole selves. We need to do the inner work of repairing our relationships with body and soul, with the physical world and the spiritual world. And we need to pursue not only inner repair, but outer repair: truth, and justice, and righteousness, those qualities that Jeremiah cites. Because inner repair without outer repair is at best insufficient, and at worst deeply damaging. If we use navel-gazing as an excuse to shirk our responsibility to heal the broken world, that’s spiritual bypassing — using the trappings of spiritual life in order to avoid facing what hurts.

So far, so good. But then the Sfat Emet says something that really surprised me. He says it’s okay to take an oath to fulfill the mitzvot, because making a promise out loud can help us live up to who we aspire to be. Our tradition regards oaths as serious business, not something to be entered-into lightly. The classical tradition frowns on them altogether! And yet, I know that making a promise aloud can change me. If I say to my child, “I promise I will do everything I can to take care of you,” those words express an inner truth and they strengthen my commitment to that truth, because I’ve spoken it aloud.

What kind of commitment are we willing to make to the mitzvot? What kind of commitment are we willing to make to spiritual practice and the inner work of teshuvah, turning and re-aligning ourselves with God? And — because inner repair without outer repair is flawed at best — what kind of commitment are we willing to make to feeding the hungry, protecting the powerless, welcoming the stranger? What kind of commitment are we willing to make to truth, justice, and righteousness? What would our lives look like if we took those commitments seriously, receiving and embodying them in all that we are?

Making commitments is risky. We might fail to live up to them. (Which is why the classical rabbinic tradition frowns on making vows in the first place.) But I’ve got a secret for you. Yom Kippur is coming, and when it gets here, we’re all going to discover that we’ve fallen down on our promises. Because we’re human, and we always do. We’re bound to fail sometimes. I don’t think that’s a good reason to not even try. Yes, making commitments is risky. But a life without those commitments — without even trying to live by standards of love and justice, truth and righteousness — would be worse.

And this is where I want to bring in another Hasidic rebbe, the Slonimer, on a passage from the end of this week’s portion. He’s writing about the establishment of cities of refuge where those who committed manslaughter could be safe from retribution. He goes into some detail about the cities of refuge, and about the spiritual implications of having done something terribly wrong. And then he says that in our day we can take refuge in faith, and in community, and in the shema, and in Shabbat which is the source of holiness and the time each week when we can rekindle our God-connection.

Community is always available to us, if we choose to seek it, and in community we can be inspired to be our best selves even if we know we’ve fallen short. The shema is always available to us, and we can pray it every day. Shabbat is available to us every week. Even if we’ve done something wrong, even if we’ve broken our vows, even if we’ve fallen down on the job of being the people we want to be, we can take refuge in community and in spiritual practice and in Shabbat. And then when the new week begins, we can try again to live up to all our vows, and to be the people we know we are called to be.

This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered this morning at CBI (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi). Shared here with gratitude to all of her hevruta learning-partners, and with gratitude to the spiritual practice of study.

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