(We will be reading Deuteronomy 23:22 – 24:18 in synagogue this Shabbat)
This week’s portion covers what appear to be a random set of laws. We begin with the command that if you make a vow to God you should not put off fulfilling it, then how you may eat grapes directly from another man’s vineyard, but you cannot take any food away with you. There follow then the laws of divorce, of how a newly married man is exempt from military service, how you must not take the means of a person’s livelihood as a pawn, laws on kidnapping, on skin disease, and treatment of the needy and the destitute, the stranger the fatherless and the widow.
What do all these things have in common?
We begin with the first command – about fulfilling vows. This is something quite alien to our understanding. We make promises lightly and just as lightly break them. But in Israelite society – a largely oral society, the formal vow had the strength and power of a legal document. Like such a document, it was made before witnesses. Literally ones word was ones bond. A promise to God was even more compelling. So if you cannot fulfil the vow – much much better you do not make it in the first place.
We are now into the month of Ellul, the month before Rosh Hashannah and all the demands of the Yamim Noraim the Days of Awe when we ask God for forgiveness. Our portion in this context draws us inevitably to the prayer Kol Nidrei which opens up the Yom Kippur evening service.
‘All vows, bonds, oaths, devotions, promises, penalites and obligations...’ may we be absolved from them in the coming year. Rather than incur the guilt threatened in our portion, - may God absolve us… may God forgive us.
On one level the prayer seems a complete contradiction to what our portion tells us. Indeed the Rabbis of old condemmed the prayer for this reason, but it is one of many examples of popular feeling overcoming rabbinic intellectualism. The ancient music – possibly as old as the prayer itself - helped preserve it in our ritual in spite of the dubious neautre of the words.
On another level, however, the Kol Nidrei prayer does not contradict but highlight the inevitable discrepancy between the ideal set in Torah and our human natures. We never live up to the ideal and the question is rather, how great this year, has been our failure. Kol Nidrei recognises that failure and asks for God’s patience and toleration of the inevtibale failures that will come next year in spite of all our efforts.
But right now we must focus on this year. Achieving forgiveness from God is what this month of Ellul is all about. Before we can approach God on the Yamim Noraim, we must say sorry – selichah and seek forgiveness of our fellows. We must look at the way we react in the world and the way we interact with others before we can achieve any heavenly connection. The mitzvoth that follow the command about vows in our portion are all about treatment of others. Each command requires that we be aware of their situation, that we do nothing that would jeopardise their livelihood; that we do everything to confer respect. Our connection with God in intertwined with our connection with people. That is what this portion tells us and that is what we are told through the festivals we observe at this time of year.
Sybil A. Sheridan