Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
First, Break All Your Vows
Yom Kippur is fast approaching. Rabbis don’t need to look at the calendar to figure this out. We know. This is Mattot-Masei, the weekly Torah portion that is ten weeks away from Yom Kippur, and whose opening verses allude to the “Kol Nidrei,” as they are about the annulment of vows.
Torah, we are reminded as we read these first challenging verses, is an ancient text edited some 2500 years ago from texts even more ancient. It is born out of a deeply patriarchal clan-based and male-dominated hierarchical society whose worldview and relationship with the Divine are unavoidably reflected in its narrative. This week’s portion brings up, for example, the power a father had to annul any vow his daughter would make while still part of his household. Once married, however, this power reverted to her husband with respects to both the vows she made while still single or since she became his wife. The rabbis of the Talmud remind us that a Jewish marriage was in their days — and in some circles today as well — a two-step process that took place at two different times. First was Kiddushin (betrothal) whereby one committed oneself to an exclusive relationship with their beloved; followed weeks or months later by Nissuin (marriage proper) where the two were to “become one flesh.” [Gen. 2:24] The rabbis explain that it was only during the period of betrothal that, retroactively, the husband had the power to annul the vows his wife made while single. After Nissuin, he no longer could. During the time of betrothal the husband-to-be had to act in conjunction with the father of the bride to annul the vows she had made while single. The husband didn’t have this retroactive power in and of himself.
We could read this passage at the literal level, and immediately denounce this archaic system that enslaved women to the will of their fathers and husbands. Or, because our teachers have taught us that there always are four levels of interpretation to every text, we could attempt, instead, to read it at the mystical level. Since the earliest days of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalists have used the images/stages of betrothal, marriage, and cosmic intercourse to express Jewish spirituality. For them, this is not talking about societal law, but about spiritual awakening. All of Israel is to be married to God and spiritually progress through these stages. The highest spiritual stage is that of Nissuin. This stage is a place of total oneness with Source, the realization that God and self are not-two, that Spirit manifests as all forms, where one “become[s] one flesh” with God in a cosmic spiritual intercourse. When one has mastered this spiritual stage, then the fruits of one’s marriage with God are the acts of compassion, love and care (i.e. Mitzvot) that one naturally births into one’s life; together with the dissolving of one’s self, of the ego.
But first is the Kiddushin (betrothal) period; the stage when the spiritual seeker commits exclusively to one spiritual practice and gives it total devotion. There the betrothed awakens to the realization that one has no power in and of oneself; that one is but a channel to the flow of Divine energy and that one’s life is to be aligned with — in conjunction (i.e. joined together) with — “the Father,” with Source. At this stage, one must unite with that Higher Power, allowing it to flow into one’s life. “And, acting together with Him,” Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains, “one can reach heights that one alone could not aspire to. One can arrive at the power of ‘annulment’, namely, nullifying oneself and the world, the masks of illusion that hide God’s Presence from humanity. And one’s power is ‘retroactive’, that is, beyond the normal limitations of time and space.”
By moving beyond the literal and opening to the deeply spiritual, the mystics are reading in this text an invitation addressed to us to embark on a spiritual journey. To choose a practice and commit to it. To let go of our illusion of control and let our Higher Self guide our way forward. We are to begin by annulling the vows of certainty, the “truths,” concepts, ideas, worldviews that bind us to only see life with the mental blinders we have created. As the Rebbe puts it: “Just as a vow binds, and an annulment breaks the bond, so one… releases the world from its bondage, from falsehood, finitude and the concealment of God.” And this is the liberating power of our Kol Nidrei.