With an open mind

Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.


Sermons and Thoughts

Making Vows Equal

23 July 2022
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
Sermon Parashat Mattot

I’ll drop my plea
For I can no longer carry it.
Where will I drop it?
My plea sticks to me with dread.
My plea becomes mute out of fear.
Many years it clung to me.
Where should I drop it?
I whisper it a secret.
Out of fear it seals itself up.
Many years I carried my plea –
How can I drop it?

I’ll drop my plea by Rivka Miriam (transl. Linda Stern Zisquit) from The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary, p. 1010.

Vows were serious things in the ancient world. They deserved tractates of interpretation, both of law and lore; tractates dedicated to theme or interspersed, staccato, always of concern. They remain so as we mark the AufRuf of Sarah and Josh, the celebration of upcoming exchanges of vows. Yet their vows will be somewhat different to those that the ancient world, the classical rabbis and current tradition.

When asked to fill out a traditional ketubah for a couple, “just in case,” I was unable to see why there were guffaws at the nominal amounts entered as dowry and safeguard; unable to comprehend why such a blatantly patriarchal, exclusive document that allowed the woman no voice, was relevant. Indeed, the couple put a stop to it.

The verses (Numbers 30:4-16) in this week’s sidrah that concern vows, demonstrate the suspicion with which vows made by women were held. Men were clearly scared by women, writing lore belittling and demeaning females and their words, to justify their subjugation in law. Their fear extended to controlling behaviour through powers of veto, regarding a women’s vow with God.

Yet the two most infamous vows which have disastrous consequences of biblical proportions, are made by men: Jephthah (Judges 11) and Saul (I Samuel 14). The first results in the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter and the latter would have resulted in Saul’s son, Jonathan being put to death; but for the protest and human ingenuity leading to Jonathan’s ransom.

As Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskanazi, editor of the aforementioned Women’s Commentary concludes, “Jonathan’s story illustrates the power in community to discover ways to overturn rash pronouncements when it would cost a human life Perhaps the legacy of Jephthah’s daughter resides in the formation of community that can protest [for the episode has a footnote, that the young Israelite women would gather annually to mourn her death].” Cohn Eskanazi concludes, “[Protest] … begins with women who gather annually and chant, making their voices heard.”

There are two points to be made here. Firstly, we are all – each and every one regardless of our unique mortal identities – capable of using words for good and for ill, wisely and foolishly, sparingly and indiscriminately. Secondly, human action can – and I would argue should – be taken to overturn ancient decrees that are blatantly unjust by the meter of contemporary, progressed ethics. For a Liberal Rabbi, a gentle guffaw is still too much.

The poem that I began with, suggests the value and severity of vows. On your wedding day, both of you, Josh and Sarah will make mutual vows. They are very much sacred, a covenant reflecting the balance, the equity and the shared joy of your marriage day.

May your vows to each other always be ones of love and harmony, peace and friendship, and may the blessing of the Eternal One always be upon you and upon us all.