A few years ago, my next-door neighbor sold her home to a group that converted it from a single-family residence into a synagogue.
Imagine that you had an argument with that neighbor and said, “I swear, I am never going to set foot in your house again!” Then last week you received an invitation from your best friend. His son will celebrate becoming bar mitzvah in that building. Can you attend that service, or must you honor your words?
The Torah portion this week says, “You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord, your God, having made the promise with your own mouth” (Deuteronomy 23:23-24). Both the Bible and the Talmud have many rules about vows. If you used God’s name in a vow, it was almost always binding and very difficult to annul. I used to teach post bar/bat mitzvah students about vows and how the rabbis held them in such high esteem. Some of those lessons could guide all of us.
The rabbis try to be more specific about what you vowed, and the teens in my class would always make the same point. Did you vow not to enter that house or did you vow not to enter the house if it belonged to a specific person? In Nedarim 3:3, the Mishnah mentions a vow that someone took not to enter a house. It points out that if the owner of that house dies or sells the it to someone else, the vow is no longer valid since it is no longer in the possession of the first owner. But if the vow was more specific; if it said that entering this house is prohibited for me, then even if the owner dies or sells it, you can’t go in.
But what if you could not have imagined when you made your vow not to set foot in that house that it could become a synagogue? Again we turn to the Mishnah, to Nedarim 9:2, where we read that if someone said: Entering this house is konam (forbidden) for me, and that house became a synagogue, and he said: Had I known that it would become a synagogue, I would not have vowed, in this and all such cases, “Rabbi Eliezer permits…the dissolution of the vow, and the rabbis prohibit it.” We have a split decision. If circumstances that are beyond your control change, Rabbi Eliezer would say, as in our case, you could enjoy the bar mitzvah in the house. You spoke too rashly and we annul your vow. The other rabbis would say something like, sorry, you can’t go. You should have been more careful with your words. Think before you speak.
When I taught this to teens, using a wonderful textbook, “Learn Mishnah,” by Jacob Neusner, there was an important lesson for them. If teenagers want to be considered seriously as adults, based on our study of the Mishnah, they should be careful with their words. Saying things that they really don’t mean, that are ill advised, or that they have to take back is childish. If they do that, people won’t treat them as adults.
That is a good lesson for adults as well. Imagine if we were held to what we say. On social media, words are often sent into cyberspace without our thinking about them. Is that why some electronic means of communication now allow you to retract a message or an email? How many times have we heard someone say that they didn’t mean what they wrote in a tweet?
I know those are not vows using God’s name, but they are words we say too often without considering their consequences.
Would that public figures refrained from outrageous statements, so that they would not have to try to weasel out of what they said. Did their words truly reveal their values, or were they rash statements? We could become a more civil society if we took our utterances as the Bible and the rabbis remind us, not just as words but as serious commitments and think of their implications before we speak.
It’s not just about attending a bar mitzvah, it’s about creating a society with more integrity.