Take vows and oaths seriously

Rabbi Justin Kerber visits patients in hospice care and in acute care hospital settings. In addition, he teaches Judaism to young people and adults and serves as the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Sholom, Quincy, Ill.

By Rabbi Justin Kerber

Promises, promises.

“I do.”

 “I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. “

“I’ll pay you back by Thursday. I promise.”

“The person whose signature appears above agrees to repay the debt according to the terms of the credit card agreement.”

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How many promises do each of us make every day? What kinds of solemn, binding oaths do we routinely witness? How are our decisions constrained by agreements we have made with other persons — or with commercial enterprises like banks, credit card issuers and insurance companies?

How many of us have made a vow like this: “Please, G-d, let my loved one recover. If he (or she) comes back to us, I promise I will never, ever, ever…,” or “…always, always, always…”?

Torah portion Matot-Masei, Numbers 30:2-32:42; 33:1-36:13 begins with a discussion of vows and oaths. Num. 30:3 says that if a man makes a vow to the Eternal or takes an oath imposing an obligation upon himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has come out of his mouth. But the next 12 verses of this brief chapter are all devoted to the vows and oaths undertaken by women. A woman still living in her father’s or her husband’s household was not fully capable of making a legally binding vow or obligation. Fathers and husbands in Biblical times had the power to override the vows and oaths of their daughters and their wives. Even if a man had no objection to his daughter’s vow or oath and she had been keeping it, her husband could still annul it once she was married as of the day he found out about it.

In this context, an oath probably meant a promise to avoid something that the person would otherwise have been permitted to do, such as drinking wine or eating meat. A vow, on the other hand, probably meant a conditional promise to G-d. 

In Biblical times, it probably went something like, “G-d, if you will let my wife recover from her illness, I promise I will bring a votive offering to the Temple on Sukkot.” (See the previous week’s portion, Pinchas, at Num. 29:39.) 

Such vows taken in moments of great anxiety are easily forgotten once the moment has passed. Yet the Torah takes them seriously. Once made, they remain binding even if forgotten or disregarded.

Without the Temple to bring these physical offerings of our gratitude, we bring the spiritual offerings of our prayers. The Torah still regards such vows as valid and binding, which helps explain the power of the Kol Nidrei service on Yom Kippur eve, excusing us from the vows we might make in moments of crisis and then forget once we are at repose. 

Today, such a prayer might more likely be phrased as something like, “Dear G!d, if you will just let my husband recover from his illness, I swear to you that I’ll give money to the food pantry every single day of my life.” Or, “Dear G-d, if you’ll just let my friend recover, I swear I’ll always wear a seat belt!” Or, “…never drive a car again!”

As a hospital chaplain, it’s not unusual for me to hear (or overhear) such bedside vows uttered by distraught relatives of patients in critical illness or severe trauma. Are these prayers effective? It depends. It’s my job to assess the spiritual state of the visitor and determine whether the person is coping in a way that works for them, or whether the situation calls for me to intervene to try to alleviate anxiety or relieve spiritual distress.

We no longer evaluate the capability of a person’s oath by gender (and even by Talmudic times, Torah sages had limited some of these Biblical precepts). Today, both men and women, once they are adults, and even emancipated minors, are expected to keep their promises, vows, obligations and agreements. But we do know a category of people whose vows can be overruled: Those who are no longer conscious, no longer communicative or no longer able to make their wishes known. Even if they once declared something like, “as Heaven is my witness, I would never want to go on living without hope of recovery,” such a vow might not be honored if they could no longer make it clear. Distressed loved ones who wanted every possible medical intervention (and might not be ready to accept the imminence of death) might overrule it.

In such cases (and especially in difficult situations when family members disagree about the best course of treatment), advance directives can be a constructive means to start a conversation about the patient’s best interests and what he or she would have wanted. A Durable Power of Attorney appoints another person to be the patient’s agent to make health care decisions if and only if the patient is no longer able to communicate his or her wishes. A Health Care Directive spells out in greater detail what treatments the patient would or would not want in such cases. 

These sound both legally binding and simple. Maybe some people are afraid they will unduly constrain the best judgment of caregivers. But judging by what I’ve seen so far, they more often start conversations than cut them off. Creating a Health Care Directive requires a person to think about what an acceptable quality of life would mean to them. An acceptable quality of life is no simple standard. It means different things to different people. Perhaps these are hard questions to consider when we are alive and well. But they are questions worth considering, discussing with our loved ones and committing to writing now, so that the vows we make when we are well about what we would want if we are ill might be honored.