Torah Reflections: July 16- 22, 2017


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 Creation 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 ego-identification, of the illusion of a separate self.

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. lulu sprandel-healy says:

    Reading the passage and your writings I had some interesting questions emerge for me. I was struck by the “She” in this passage. I am interested in the movement of the Feminine aspect from independence ( the ability to make a vow on one’s own) and the progression to breaking of vows by the Father and intended husband. Here I see the Father as an out going energy ( creating a vacuum/emptiness /Buddhist (Shunyata) understanding of the term) (Yin)and the husband the incoming energy (Yang). I think of the cosmic dance; ” Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form” .
    I am fascinated that this transaction, mutates Her ability (?) to annul Her own vows. It appears that in Her engagement ( energetic/betrothal) it sparks a process of movement, from independence to interdependence. Does She at this moment become the Malchut? Much as a woman leaves her independence to engage in marriage ( transmutation/transformation), she begins a process of creative activity. Daughter, to wife, to mother. In this she must leave the father , in order to free herself( emptiness) to create the home( form/Malchut/ formation) in which she will nurture her children and the future of humanity.
    This progression of energy seems to follow the same pattern. I think of “*Olada:giving birth ; one of the steps of Tikkun of a Partsuf. After gestation inside the superior feminine Partsuf Nukvah, the Partsuf comes out and continues the growth process.1.”
    In the context of when it considers Yom Kippur, I think of the journey of the Shechinah from the upper realms to accompany us to the world of formation. She descends and is “engaged” with humanity, to our destiny and our evolution, ( Yom Kippur) .
    I see the transformative energy of Teshuvah and its journey to the culmination of energy on Yom Kippur. The energy of Justice:Gevurah (rigor/left /feminine) transporting our intention/karma, to Forgiveness/Compassion Chesed( kindness/right/masculine), and its final destination, its manifestation to divine marriage: *Tiferet 2(balance) =Tikkun Olam.
    It appears to me to be a infinite circle, the beginning point is departure and arrival.

    As an aside, this seems very relevant to what we are experiencing in our world today, with the current political /environmental challenges we are living. It makes me wonder what vows will be necessary to break, the atonement /commitment/ betrothal to healing and change that we will need to engage in, in order to create a healed world , a sustainable humanity; a Tikkun Olam.

    I hope my ideas are not too rough, to follow, I was really moved to explore the passage more.
    Here is the source I used, to explore this.

    1.Kabbalah Dictionary, Rabbi Raphael Afilalo, p.118-119
    2. ” “, Tiferet p. 373
    3.” “, Asiah p.71

Speak Your Mind