The annulment of vows plays a prominent role in our preparation for and experience of the Yamim Noraim. On Erev Rosh HaShanah, we convene a Jewish court comprised of three individuals and we recite Hatarat Nedarim. We request that these “Dayanim Mumchin” release us from any vow, oath, or acceptance that we might have assumed over the course of the previous year. In addition, we enter into the supreme sanctity of Yom HaKippurim with the prayer service of Kol Nidrei. The solemn prayer and melody attract the participation of all types of Jews worldwide. The recital of Kol Nidrei, in effect, negates any vow we might have adopted during the previous year, and annuls in advance any vow we might assume in the future. On the surface, it is surprising how central of a role the annulment of vows plays on these Days of Judgment and Repentance.
Rav Dimi in Masechet Nedarim (77b) makes a seemingly outlandish statement. “Kol HaNodeir, Af Al Pi SheHu MeKaimo, Nikra Chotei,” “Whoever takes a vow, even though he might loyally fulfill his duty, is called a sinner.” The basis for Rav Dimi’s astonishing claim is a Pasuk in this week’s Parashah. The Pasuk states (Devarim, 23:23) “VeChi Techdal Lindor, Lo Yihyeh Becha Cheit,” “When you refrain from pronouncing a vow, you will avoid sin.” The avoidance of any verbal declaration and acceptance will secure a person’s avoidance of sin. Then, and only then, will a person be free of sin; however, if an individual verbally obligates himself, despite the fulfillment of his duty, he will become enmeshed in sin.
Rav Dimi’s teaching seems incomprehensible. An individual who utilizes a vow as a motivational technique to act in a certain manner, to refine his ways, and to live an idealistic, aspiring life should be honored. He ought to be recognized for his nobility and righteousness. Perhaps honoring that individual with Maftir Yonah would be more suitable than dubbing him a sinner.
The notion of utilizing a motivational device to inspire greater dedication toward an ideal is a complex one. On the one hand, creating an extra sense of obligation due to one’s verbal acceptance can be viewed in a positive light. It reflects the most sincere interests of a person and his effort to improve. That person crafts an extra sense of duty in order to meet his goals and succeed in implementing his plans. At the same time, there is an inherent shortcoming to the program. God is interested not only in our external behavior and our outward compliance, but in our inner- world, as well. He is interested in cultivating an inner goodness and an inherent disposition to do what is right. The values of the Torah must be internalized such that action and restraint become a natural expression of our innermost desires. From this vantage point, the very need to rely upon external motivation and additional prodding reflects that the value has not yet been fully internalized. Great effort is yet necessary before a person will have succeeded in fully incorporating and assimilating the values of the Torah into the essence of his being.
It is for this reason that we enter the Yamim Noraim with the annulment of vows. Our outstanding vows and pledges might seem, on the surface, to serve as effective motivational tools. At the same time, we hesitate to rely upon them as we stand before the Ribbono Shel Olam on the Day of Judgment. We would like to present ourselves not only as individuals with good deeds, but with good souls. We would like to be recognized not only as individuals who possess pleasant actions, but actions that reflect a charitable spirit and a kind core. We would like to be able to point to an inherent goodness and a being that has internalized the Torah’s values, not only to our behavioral compliance when duty bound to perform. May our focus be not only on our external actions, but also on the purity of our inner hearts and souls enable us to merit a year of life, health, and peace for us, our families, and all of Klal Yisrael.