Parashat Matot begins with the laws of vows. In Judaism, vows are considered to be binding to the utmost degree and therefore, one who makes a vow is required to uphold it. Furthermore, Seforno (VaYikra 19:12) adds that one who violates a pledge desecrates Hashem’s name, based on the Pasuk in Matot (BeMidbar 30:3), “Lo Yacheil Devaro; KeChol HaYotzei MiPiv Ya’aseh,” “he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that crosses his lips.” The word used for “break” is “Yacheil,” which Seforno connects to a similar word found in VaYikra 19:12, namely “VeChilalta.” This word is used to teach that one who swears by God’s name falsely is “profaning the name of your God.” Since the word in the latter verse is used to mean “desecration,” whereas the word in the former verse refers to a break in the oath, Seforno concludes that violating a pledge constitutes a desecration of Hashem’s name. However, we know that in some cases it is possible to annul vows, which, in light of the severity of oaths in Judaism, raises the obvious question: How is it that a person can simply annul a vow given that a transgression of that same promise is tantamount to desecrating Hashem’s name?
Let us first look at the mechanisms with which one may annul a vow. There are two main cases in which a vow may be annulled (Nedarim 9). The first case occurs when conditions or facts on which the vow was made or based were changed. In that case, the vow may be annulled if the new circumstances cause remorse on behalf of the person who vowed. Rambam (Hilchot Shevuot 6:1) extends this allowance to even a mere change of mind on the part of the person who committed to the vow. The second case occurs when the facts of the situation have not changed; rather, they simply were not clear when the vow was taken. For example, if one vows to not give a group of incoming travelers food but soon realizes that one of the travelers is his father, he may absolve himself from the oath and feed his father.
Why might we be so lenient with the annulment of vows to the extent that Rambam would take a lenient rule and reformulate it into something even more lenient? To understand the trend of leniency in the rabbinic arena, we must examine the nature of vows. A vow, as the Torah describes it, is the acceptance of an additional prohibition on oneself. When a person makes a vow and provides himself with another prohibition, he is detaching himself from the greater society. Hashem’s commandments, as detailed in the Torah, provide a standard set of guidelines by which all of Bnei Yisrael are supposed to live their lives. When a person makes a commitment, he removes himself from the society, because there is something forbidden to him but allowed for everyone else. Therefore, it is conceivable that the annulment of vows is a lenient process, due to the concept formulated best by Hillel in Pirkei Avot (2:4), “Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibbur,” “Do not separate yourself from the community.”
This concept can also explain the discussion about whether becoming a Nazir is positive or a negative (Nazir 19a). It would appear just from the verses themselves in BeMidbar (6:1-21) that Nezirut is a positive, given the use of the term “Kadosh” used to describe the Nazir, and that the prohibitions on the Nazir are reminiscent of the prohibitions on Kohanim (who are also considered the cream of the crop of Bnei Yisrael.) However, Rav Elazar HaKappar (ad loc.) states that Nezirut is not a positive obligation to take upon oneself. We can explain his opinion with the reasoning that we have seen earlier, namely that it is improper to separate oneself from the Tzibbur.
To come full circle, we have pointed out that Sforno believes that the breaking of a vow is considered a desecration of Hashem’s name whereas the annulment of a vow is a way to reinsert oneself back into the community. Nowadays, many do not take making vows seriously, if they even make such vows at all. However, we can still apply Parashat Matot and the rabbinic stance on annulment of vows to our lives to learn that the Achdut, or unity, of Bnei Yisrael is of supreme value.