Promises on a Bumpy Road

Mattot, Numbers 30:2-32:42

July 16, 2014

On Scripture Minna BrombergSoon we will enter the land. There will be bumps in the road. Things we swore we would do may go undone. Things we promised we would refrain from may become commonplace.

Here in parashat Mattot, the Israelites are already encamped on the Plains of Moab, having finished their forty years of wandering in the desert. Soon they will spend the length of the Book of Deuteronomy listening to Moses give them final instructions before they enter the land that they know to be both full of milk and honey and full of challenges.

Soon we too, my husband and I, will enter the land: we are making aliyah in the middle of August. We too know Israel to be a land of sweetness and a land full of challenges both expected and unexpected.

Moses gave the Israelites the Torah in the hopes that it would help them stay on the right path despite the many bumps in the road. What does Torah teach me now as I prepare to make aliyah?

In this week’s Torah portion, the text discusses promises that cannot be broken saying: “When a man vows a vow to the Lord…he shall not break his word; he will do according to all that comes out of his mouth” (Numbers 30:3). But it also imagines people whose promises can be overruled by those who have power over them — their spouses or their fathers. These people can make vows, but the vows only become unbreakable if no person of authority in their life disapproves.

Torah calls those whose promises can be kept “men” and it calls those whose promises are subject to the will of another “women.” But this is a fantasy and a false dichotomy. All of us — men and women alike — at some point find our ability to act in accordance with promises we have made (to ourselves and to others) compromised by forces beyond our control. Those bumps in the road, they make it hard to stay on course.

Because they are breakable, our tradition is shy of vows. My Grandma Roz always counseled me not to make promises I couldn’t keep. And some Jewish folks use the expression “bli neder” (“without a vow”) to shield themselves when they utter something that might otherwise sound like a binding promise of action or of restraint.

Moses wanted the people to stick to the Torah, the teachings he had given them. He wasn’t going to travel that new bumpy road with them, though; his journey was at an end. I want to read Mattot’s story about who can make promises and who cannot not as a story about men and women and the differences in their status. Instead, I want to read this story as an expression of the desire to be able to foresee our futures well enough to make promises twinned with an acknowledgment that lived experience will sometimes prevent us from being able to keep the promises we make.

As I prepare to enter the land, I too am clinging to Jewish teachings and values and practices that have placed me in good stead so far. Yet I am leery of making promises about exactly where this bumpy road will lead me. What if falling rockets bump my political beliefs to the right or to the left? What if I fall in love with a way of spending Shabbat that is closer to Orthodoxy or closer to “secular” than I could possibly imagine given my current practice?

Yesterday I was driving with the back of the car full of material possessions bound to my parents’ house for safekeeping or for giving away. Getting ready to make aliyah has involved a lot of sorting and winnowing of stuff. Included in this batch was not one but two tambourines (neither of which I’ve ever used but both of which were gifts from folks I hold dear). They were packed in boxes weeks ago and I had forgotten they were there. With each bump in the road they made a jingle or a jangle. And with each bump in the road I began to make a wish for myself — a wish I want to extend to everyone traveling a bumpy road: If you have made yourself promises about an unknown future, may you bear them lightly. May you forgive yourself if life’s circumstances or forces beyond your control nullify your spoken or unspoken vows. May every bump in the road make its own jingle-jangle music.

Minna Bromberg serves as rabbi of Kesher Zion Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in Reading, Pa, and has released five albums of original music. She was ordained by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2010 and earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University. Visit her website here.

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