The Good Vow
Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion
SICHA OF HARAV YA'AQOV MEDAN SHLIT"A
The Good Vow
Parashat Vayeitzei opens with Yaakov's famous prophetic dream of the angels on the heavenly ladder, in which God promises to accompany him on his journey to the house of his uncle Lavan. The next morning, Yaakov takes the stone that had been his pillow, sets it up as a monument and anoints it with oil. He names the place Beit El, and finally, he makes a neder (vow):
If God remains with me, if He protects me on this way on which I travel, giving me bread to eat and clothing to wear; and if I return safely to my father's house, the Lord shall be my God. This stone, which I have erected as a monument, will be God's house (beit E-lohim), and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You. (Bereishit 28:20-22)
The concept of a neder presents a contradiction between the Written and the Oral Torah if one can even say such a thing! In Scripture, a neder is seen as a very positive thing, with Yaakov setting the template. In the desert, the Jews make a neder before they attack the king of Arad (Bamidbar 21:2), and the main passage of nedarim (Bamidbar 30) precedes their war with Midyan (Bamidbar 31). Sefer Shmuel begins with Channa's neder to dedicate her son to God (I 1:11), where it is seen as a tremendous merit. Later in that book, Avshalom makes a neder when he runs away from his brothers and his father to Geshur (II 15:8).
However, in the Oral Torah, our sages have a completely different perspective on nedarim. Consider Nedarim 22a, where Rabbi Natan says, "He who vows, it is as if he has built a forbidden altar; if he fulfills it, it as if he has brought an offering upon it." Our sages see nedarim as something very negative, something which should not be made even if they are fulfilled to the letter.
Furthermore, the concept of hattarat nedarim (annulment of vows) is one with no basis in the text of the Torah. Our sages say (Chagiga 10a) that it "hangs in the air, with nothing to support it." There is no Scriptural basis for this device! Would we ever allow our courts to use the petachim (literally, "openings," i.e. pretexts to release one from a vow on the basis of unanticipated developments) that are used in hattarat nedarim for commercial or matrimonial law? It would destroy the entire framework of marriage and business!
Why then does Halakha permit us to annul vows? It is clear that the mechanism of hattarat nedarim is a direct consequence of our sages' negative attitude towards nedarim. The Mishna (Nedarim 3:1-3) lists four types of vows that are so baseless that they are automatically annulled, from nidrei havai, vows to establish outlandish claims, to vows used as a tool to fight or coerce people. Our sages see this potential abuse and react by undermining the concept of nedarim.
However, there is one place where nedarim are still allowed and encouraged by our sages: be-eit tzara (in a time of distress):
Rabbi Yitzchak Ha-Bavli said: "'My mouth spoke when I was in distress' (Tehillim 66:14) a neder is a mitzva in a time of distress. What is '[Yaakov made a vow to the Lord,] saying' (Bereishit 28:20)? 'Saying' for all generations: They should make vows in their times of distress. Yaakov was the first to make a neder, so everyone who vows should attribute it to him." (Bereishit Rabba 70:1)
Nedarim be-eit tzara are the original case of nedarim mentioned in the Torah. All the cases in Tanakh where nedarim are seen as positive are be-eit tzara. This is because a neder be-eit tzara is a specific way of communicating with and relating to God; therefore, these nedarim are not only allowed by our sages, but even encouraged.
At the end of this week's parasha, after two decades in Lavan's house, Yaakov has another prophetic dream, this one telling him to return to Eretz Yisrael:
I am the God of Beit El, where you erected a monument, where you made a vow to me; now, arise and depart from this land, and return to the land of your birth.
This is God telling Yaakov that it is time for him to fulfill his neder. Eventually, Yaakov makes his way to Beit El (Bereishit 35:1-15) and builds an altar there, but it is centuries before Beit El becomes "beit E-lohim." When is this dream finally realized?
In Sefer Shoftim (20:26-28), we find:
All of the Israelites and all the nation ascended, and they came to Beit El and they cried; they sat there, before God, and they fasted on that day, until the evening, and they offered burnt-offerings and peace-offerings before God. Then the Israelites consulted God; the Ark of God's Covenant was there in those days. Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon, stood before it in those days...
According to the Gemara (Zevachim 118b), the Mishkan (Tabernacle) stood at Shilo for 369 years, from the conclusion of the division of the land in the days of Yehoshua until the capture of the Ark in Shmuel's youth, an era encompassing all of Sefer Shoftim. Thus, we see that the neder of Yaakov was fulfilled when the Mishkan was established in Shilo, as it is equated with Beit El, the site of Yaakov's original dream. Though it takes over two-and-a-half centuries for the first neder in Jewish history to be fulfilled in its entirety, Yaakov's words are not in vain.
We see that a neder can be dangerous, but in an eit tzara, it can be inspiring. Yaakov's vow gave his descendants the strength to survive centuries of exile, and we still look to it. As a nation, we hope for the day when we can emerge from our historical eit tzara and worship in a rebuilt beit E-lohim.
 [Ed. Note (AD):] As an aside, I would like to cite Rav Assaf Bednarsh's insightful explanation of the verses cited at the beginning of this sicha. One may ask: what is Yaakov doing? Is he trying to bribe God? Does he think that he can promise God something and He will help in order to receive Yaakov's half of the deal? It is not as if we say this was a mistake and that Yaakov did something wrong; nor do we say that this is something appropriate only for Yaakov, but we should not follow him. On the contrary, our sages praise Yaakov for this and tell us that this is the way a person should act in a time of trouble! Therefore, we must look at the words of Yaakov, wherein we see that he does not simply promise things to God: all of the elements he vows to God are things that he will be able to do only if God helps him. He can only build the "beit E-lohim" if he comes back to Eretz Yisrael safely. Yaakov can only give a tithe to God if He gives him food and clothing. One who is in a state of trouble feels how insecure one's position in this world really is and how much one is dependent on God; at this point, a person feels the need to serve God to the fullest. Yaakov realizes this and takes advantage of his situation, being in an eit tzara, to make a neder and fulfill his desire to advance his service of God when the eit tzara passes. Similarly, our sages tell us to make a neder be-eit tzara so we can actualize afterwards the returning and closeness to God which one feels when in dire straits.