Making vows involves ongoing dialogue with God

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, we find three spectacular images tied to the three towering personalities: the clouds of glory attributed to the merit of Aaron, the “Well of Water” to the merit of Miriam, and the manna to the merit of Moses. The “Clouds of Glory” and the “Well” disappeared with the passing of Aaron and Miriam, but they were later restored in the merit of Moses (who broadened his leadership role).
One of the distinguishing qualities of Aaron, recounted in Pirkei Avot, was that he loved beriyot (creatures) — even those people who had no other apparent virtue other than being “creatures [of God].” Thus, it is said of Aaron alone that “the entire house of Israel mourned Aaron for 30 days.” (Numbers 20:29) That is also the deeper reason why the “Clouds of Glory” came by virtue of Aaron — for, as the Talmud explains, everything follows the principle of “measure for measure.” Just as he loved all beings without distinction, so he elicited the “Clouds of Glory” which encompassed each member of the community equally.
But these clouds of glory, which had surrounded and protected the Jewish people, temporarily disappeared with Aaron’s passing. It was then that the nations who had been observing what was happening within the camp of Israel smelled opportunity — they figured that the Israelites were now vulnerable. One nation, located closest to the south of the land, decided that it was an appropriate time to attack.
Picking up on a detail in the verse, the biblical commentaries relate that this nation was, in fact, Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people, who approached them in disguise: “The Amalekites changed their language and spoke in the language of Canaan, so that the Israelites would pray to God to deliver the Canaanites into their hands, and [since] they were not, in fact, Canaanites [the prayers of Israel would have no effect]. Nevertheless, Israel noticed that they were dressed like Amalekites…”
Amalek first took a Jewish maidservant captive. One child seized from the Jewish community was enough to prompt the entire Jewish people to wage war. And before setting out to battle, they made a vow to God, saying, “Vayeedar Yisrael neder … if I’m able to be victorious over this people” — it said “this people,” instead of specifying, because the identity wasn’t yet clear — “then I will consecrate their cities.” The Torah continues that “God listened to the voice (i.e., the vow) of Israel,” accepted the prayer, and delivered the Amalek people into the hands of Israel. And after the people were destroyed, the possessions in the cities were all dedicated to God, given to the Temple.
The power of speech
In Judaism, making a vow to God is a solemn act. This power that a person has in his or her mouth is more intense than many may realize. There is a type of neder, vow, that is unilateral — things that a person verbally resolves to do or refrain from doing. In Jewish law, such a vow can even make certain items holy, or off-limits, for an individual. Then there’s the type of vow mentioned in the above verse, which is more like “making a deal” with God. It usually arises in a dangerous situation, when a person is feeling helpless and pleads that “if You, God, will help me, then I’ll do such-and-such for You.”
This phrase “he made a vow” appears only three times in scriptural narratives: The first mention is with our forefather Jacob while he was traveling down a precarious and dangerous path to Haran, where he would find his soulmate and build his home. After the mysterious dream where he saw the ladder reaching up to heaven, he made a vow and said “If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way…and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear, and if I return in peace to my father’s house…this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me, I will tithe to You.” (Genesis 28:20-22)
The second place this phrase, “Vayeedar neder,” occurs is in this week’s portion, when Israel (Jacob’s proper name, now used for the Jewish people) made a vow. The third and final time appears in the Book of Judges, Chapter 11. But in the story of this final mention, making a vow degenerated into a tragic situation wherein the general, Yiftach (Jephthah), didn’t take into consideration what could possibly evolve from his deal with God.
Should we make deals with God?
The subject of making vows is a complex topic to consider, including whether such promises are recommended or discouraged. On one hand, we see from the verses of Jacob and Israel’s vow that there is a precedent for making deals. On the other hand, the concept of making vows to God can be dangerous. There are those who argue that, as a rule, all decisions and promises should be kept in one’s heart rather than expressed in words. The most basic reason is that we lack foresight and cannot consider all factors — a person never knows whether they will be able to follow through with the vow. (In the spiritual realm, just as in the financial, it’s always preferable to receive a gift or an investment in your venture than to take a loan, even an interest-free loan.)
The mystical teachings point out that whenever the story of a vow appears, the Torah uses the words, “Vayeedar neder.” This phrase possesses the same numerical equivalent, 474, as daat — ”knowledge” or “consciousness.” Perhaps the deeper message here is that the ability to make a vow, in the optimal sense, requires a high level of knowledge. In other words, if a person has higher consciousness, the ongoing awareness that God is the only true reality guiding the outcome while everything in this world, “below,” is relatively naught — then his or her vow will be solid. If, however, the vow is made from desperation, a lower-level consciousness, it is unwise.
This does not mean, however, that in one’s private communion with God, one should refrain from declaring positive resolutions. After all, the effectiveness and fruits of prayer are largely about effort and personal change. When you change, so does your judgment and fate. Likewise, to make room for blessings, it is always helpful to express a firm commitment for the future — but without promising (in Hebrew, “bli neder”). The ideal approach is to make the commitments regardless of any outcome.
The theme from all the above is internalizing how improving our relationship with God is more than refining our attitude toward the events in our lives — it involves an ongoing dialogue. Sometimes, the impetus to get closer stems from “an initiative from above.” For example, because something good happened to us, we feel inspired to make a positive change as a way to show gratitude. Other times, we make the change first — do a mitzvah, or pray — and then look for reciprocation. And there are times when, under pressure, we feel compelled to call out for help and we lay out the terms — “If You do this for me, then I’ll…”
Either way, we learn from the Torah that our words make an impression.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit

Leave a Reply