A Vow and a Covenant: Parashat Ki Tavo – Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Wow!!! Read this Parashat with fresh eyes. What a deal the Israelites made with their God! It has all the power of Ecclesiastes. But to understand that deal it is helpful, indeed necessary, to go back to several verses in the previous Parashat on vows in chapter 23 that we actually worked on in last week’s Torah study group.


כב  כִּי-תִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לֹא תְאַחֵר לְשַׁלְּמוֹ:  כִּי-דָרֹשׁ יִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מֵעִמָּךְ, וְהָיָה בְךָ, חֵטְא.
22 When thou shalt vow a vow unto the LORD thy God, thou shalt not be slack to pay it; for the LORD thy God will surely require it of thee; and it will be sin in thee.
כג  וְכִי תֶחְדַּל, לִנְדֹּר–לֹא-יִהְיֶה בְךָ, חֵטְא. 23 But if thou shalt forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in thee.
כד  מוֹצָא שְׂפָתֶיךָ, תִּשְׁמֹר וְעָשִׂיתָ:  כַּאֲשֶׁר נָדַרְתָּ לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, נְדָבָה, אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ, בְּפִיךָ.  {ס} 24 That which is gone out of thy lips thou shalt observe and do; according as thou hast vowed freely unto the LORD thy God, even that which thou hast promised with thy mouth. {S}

Vowing is a totally voluntary act. There can be no coercion forcing anyone to take a vow. A vow must be uttered, must be mouthed. It is an action and not simply a clause in a contract. The vow is one made “unto the Lord thy God,” that is, either directly to God or “as God is my witness.” The vow of marriage could be made just to one’s betrothed, but it could also be a divine vow, one made in the presence of God. Further, if one makes a vow unto God, and it is kept, there is a reciprocal vow by God, a collective one to cherish the people He has chosen. A vow consecrates a marriage made between God and the Jewish people.

In a commentary on 5 September 2017, for whom this passage summarized the whole of the Tanakh, Rabbi Sacks wrote:

The English translation, above, is that of the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh. Any translation, however, tends to conceal the difficulty in the key verb in both sentences: le-ha’amir. What is strange is that, on the one hand, it is a form of one of the most common of all biblical verbs, lomar, “to say”. On the other, the specific form used here – the hiphil, or causative form – is unique. Nowhere else does it appear in this form in the Bible, and its meaning is, as a result, obscure.

The JPS translation reads it as “affirmed”. Aryeh Kaplan, in The Living Torah, reads it as “declared allegiance to”. Robert Alter renders it: “proclaimed”. Other interpretations include “separated to yourself” (Rashi), “chosen” (Septuagint), “recognised” (Saadia Gaon), “raised” (Radak, Sforno), “betrothed” (Malbim), “given fame to” (Ibn Janach), “exchanged everything else for” (Chizkuni), “accepted the uniqueness of” (Rashi to Chagigah 3a), or “caused God to declare” (Judah Halevi, cited by Ibn Ezra.

So what does he really mean to make a vow before God? What happens when we make a bond with God or between two human beings before God, a vow that is stated orally and one which preserves the power of an oral culture as it transitions to a literate one in an act which itself engages in the transition from a shame to a guilt (or sin) culture?  

We create a new world just as God brought the world into being with His words. A vow does not depict. A vow does not classify as in Adam’s first assignment. A vow does not determine merit. A vow is not the expression of a feeling. A vow is not simply a connector – “Hello.” A vow does not praise or blame. A vow is certainly not a critique. Nor is it an order. Neither is a vow either a scientific hypothesis or, on the other hand, an extension of our imagination as in poetry, though poetry may be used to capture the essence of a vow. A vow is an oral statement that creates a new world. It is an illocutionary act. It does not describe a fact but creates one.

But a vow is not simply a promise or a pledge, unilateral or reciprocal, each in itself an illocutionary act. A vow creates a covenant and not just an oral contract. Contracts can be broken and, if broken, the breach carries consequences. In that, promises are similar to vows. But a contract once made is fixed. While a vow is only kept alive through repetition, through recommitment in each moment of daily practice. Ironically, a vow, which is far more profound than a promise, is also more ephemeral. It has no life without renewed commitment.

Precisely because vows are dependent on repetition, they are not dogmas. They are not absolutes. They are not matters of blind faith. Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof is full of doubt and questioning. He lives in a time of great uncertainty. But the vow has allowed empathy and compassion to enter into the world and become an integral part of relationships.

What is the nature of that new world created by the vow? It establishes a moral relationship, a relationship that depends on mutual respect rather than an exchange of rewards. Slavery is founded on coercion. The relationship forged by a vow creates a bond between a bondsperson and a Lord that has neither a component of coercion nor a transactional quality. Most importantly, the relations established by a vow are not time bound. They continue endlessly but, ironically, only continue if there is a moment-to-moment recommitment through one’s actions.

As Jonathan Sacks wrote, “Judaism is a covenant, a marriage between God and a people” in which each party must continually renew that vow. To do that, to heed what is said in a vow, it is incumbent that one listen, that one listen and hear. Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof talks to God. He does not need to request a hearing. But he has to strain to hear the words of his God. And God must open up to him in turn. “And we cried unto the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression.” (26:7) In return, we vow with our whole heart and soul to walk in the ways of God and keep His laws and, thereby, become a holy people.

ט  וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה וְהַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם, אֶל כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר:  הַסְכֵּת וּשְׁמַע, יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה נִהְיֵיתָ לְעָם, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ. 9 And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke unto all Israel, saying: ‘Keep silence, and hear, O Israel; this day thou art become a people unto the LORD thy God.
י  וְשָׁמַעְתָּ, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ; וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת-מִצְוֺתָו וְאֶת-חֻקָּיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם.  {ס} 10 Thou shalt therefore hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and do His commandments and His statutes, which I command thee this day.’ {S}

Hear. Hearken to the voice. Listen. And note the consequences – the curses, the blessings, and the curses again and again. So many!  “And all these curses shall come upon thee, and shall pursue thee, and overtake thee, till thou be destroyed; because thou didst not hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which He commanded thee.” (28:45) On the other hand, “And all these blessings shall come upon thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God.” (28:2) Curses or blessings overtake you, take over your life.

But were vows not voluntary? Why the commandments? Were vows not made without reference to rewards and punishments? Why the long list of horrific consequences, every plague and every sickness, every humiliation and every form of slavery and psychological depression, and, worst of all, exile and becoming scattered throughout the world for not keeping one’s vows?

But if kept? If you know and keep the vow deep in your heart, if you look and listen, prosperity and the good life both lay ahead. But the reason for the blessing is not as a result of keeping the vow, but is a sign that the vow is being kept by you. The vow is a blessing. The curses indicate the absence of the vow being kept. Either one or the other will catch up to you, overtake you, grab you, possess you. The result is not so much a consequence of one’s action, but characterizes the action. And you cannot escape. The choice is yours. Will your life be a blessing and be blessed, whatever the degree of suffering? Or will your life be cursed whatever the degree of prosperity one achieves?

The covenant is there for you to make or not, to keep or not, to renew or not. The action, the vow, is its own reward. Accept your blessings. Rejoice in them.

With the help of Alex Zisman

en, prosperity and the good life both lay ahead. But the reason for the blessing is not as a result of keeping the vow, but is a sign that the vow is being kept by you. The vow is a blessing. The curses indicate the absence of the vow being kept. Either one or the other will catch up to you, overtake you, grab you, possess you. The result is not so much a consequence of one’s action, but characterizes the action. And you cannot escape. The choice is yours. Will your life be a blessing and be blessed, whatever the degree of suffering? Or will your life be cursed whatever the degree of prosperity one achieves?

The covenant is there for you to make or not, to keep or not, to renew or not. The action, the vow, is its own reward. Accept your blessings. Rejoice in them.

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