Parashat Ki Teitze
Deuteronomy 23 :22 When you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; 23 whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing. 24 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.
These verses expand upon a familiar verse from the beginning of Parashat Matot, which states, “If a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” (Numbers 30:3), adding to it some significant points. In this week’s parashah, Ki Teitze, we are directed not merely to keep the vows we make to God, but to ensure that we do not delay our fulfillment of such vows, lest we incur guilt.
Our tradition has a complicated relationship with vows and oaths. Vows are mentioned a number of times throughout the Torah and, in fact, there is an entire tractate of the Talmud dedicated to the topic (Nedarim), and we are given to understand not to undertake them lightly. In fact, this week’s parashah reminds us that we need not make them at all, stating, “you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing.” Vows and oaths, as the tradition understands them, are not simply intentions that we have for our behavior, but specific statements – invoking the name of, and thus becoming responsible to, God – typically to abstain from a particular behavior or activity, but we should be no less diligent in our promises, and subsequent responsibilities, to ourselves.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with making commitments to ourselves, but I would encourage us to be informed by this parashah when thinking about these commitments. Here Moses enjoins us to fulfill our promises as soon as possible. In order to do so, we must ensure that our commitments are reasonable. It is not uncommon to say to oneself “I will always do” one thing or “I will never do” this other thing. When we use this absolute language, we are being unrealistic and potentially endangering the very quality that we are attempting to safeguard in making the commitment. These personal commitments and promises may not hold the status of vows as defined by our tradition, but the consequences felt in failing to uphold them can be devastating. For someone beginning to take up a religious practice such as kashrut or Shabbat observance, there is a tendency to fall into all-or-nothing thinking. Many people will try to take on all of the rules at one time only to find it overwhelming. When I first tried to take on Shabbat observance, as soon as I made a mistake I would simply give up for the rest of the day and revert to old ways. Happily for me, my Rabbi recognized my frustration and anxiety and encouraged me to take things more slowly, building up my observance over time, making my goal not perfection, but progress.
Many individuals in recovery will adopt the mindset that they can never drink or get high again, only to find the concept overwhelming and actually an impediment to their recovery. My spiritual counseling clients who struggle with this are often relieved when I suggest that they make shorter term goals for themselves, a day, a week, a year. Indulging in all-or-nothing thinking can lead one who has relapsed to view the event as catastrophic, the feeling of shame and failure that comes along with it potentially leading them to give up entirely on their commitment to recovery.
This all-or-nothing thinking is a denial of one’s humanity and a rejection of the possibility of t’shuvah. We, as human beings, make mistakes, as it is said in the book of Ecclesiastes, “there is no righteous person in the world who does good and does not err” (7: 20).
The statement in this week’s parashah that we should not delay in fulfilling an obligation, reminds me that always and never aren’t viable options when making a commitment. I cannot fulfill a commitment to never again do something or to always be something. I cannot fathom what that means, but I can commit to living today a little better than yesterday. Be well.