Vows and Stringencies: Going Beyond Halakha
Summarized by Ari Mermelstein
This week's parasha opens with a discussion of nedarim (vows), addressing its words to the heads of the tribes. In order to understand why this section was designated for the heads of the tribes, we must examine the unique formulation with which the Torah prefaces the details of the law (30:7): "This is the thing which the Lord has commanded." In the wake of the tragedy at Ba'al Pe'or, the heads of the tribes apparently recommended that Moshe take steps to prevent such an event from recurring. Apparently, they felt that abstinence through self-accepted vows sanctioned by Halakha could serve as the means towards this end, and Moshe in the beginning of this week's parasha responded to this request. "This is the thing which the Lord has commanded" represents the initiation of a category of voluntary vows focused on abstinence, to be included under the rubric of Halakha. The fact that Halakha recognizes vows as a legitimate halakhic norm requires our closer attention.
The Rambam (Hilkhot Nedarim 13:23) writes, "He who takes vows ... to correct his ways ... is praiseworthy." Nonetheless, in the next halakha he discourages the acceptance of vows on a regular basis, and subsequently (13:25) sharpens this point in saying that "He who takes vows is tantamount to having built a 'bama'" (a sacrificial altar outside the Temple, upon which it is forbidden to offer sacrifices). What is the meaning of this comparison? A bama represents a person's desire to depart from the standard route of worship in the Temple in order to establish his personal, alternate route. Likewise, self-imposed prohibitions taken on through vows also represent a retreat from the normal world of mitzvot; the person adopts an additional track through which to worship God. Rather than remaining content with the mitzvot that God gave, the person chooses the Torah-sanctioned track of vows, thereby isolating himself from the standard world of avodat Hashem (divine service).
Taken at face value, this scenario does not seem to be negative; on the contrary, the person is motivated by the desire to accept upon himself more obligations. However, one must know where he stands in his avodat Hashem. There is no reason to desert the multitude of commandments which we are bound to fulfill in search of more. Who are you to think that you have exhausted the 613 mitzvot which are the most basic level of observance?
This issue of nedarim parallels a phenomenon which is widespread throughout the contemporary world of Jewish observance. Often, Orthodox Jews dismiss what the Halakha requires of them as being undignified, and opt for "chumrot," or a stricter adherence to the laws. I strongly object to this ubiquitous practice - it must rather remain the province of rare individuals of great spiritual attainment. Often, by taking on a stricter level of observance which exceeds what God requires of us, we lose the spiritual component in our worship and instead become overly ritualistic. Instead, we should recognize who we are, and not deem ourselves above the basic level of observance.
There was a time when one could look up to the gedolim, such as the Chazon Ish and Rav Chaim Brisker, and admire their strict observance of the law, marvel at the chumrot which they took upon themselves. However, chumrot are no longer relegated to the realm of the gedolim; every simple Jew thinks it his task in life to live as the gedolim do.
I once rode in a car with a student in the Yeshiva who is now an important rabbi. I turned to him and remarked: "I would wager that you wear an especially large garment on which to place the tzitzit." "Rebbe," he responded, "how did you know?" I answered, "Since the Mishna Berura writes that a God-fearing person should don a larger garment, I assume that you see fit to heed his words. I, on the other hand, do not fancy myself to be in that exclusive category, and therefore am satisfied wearing a smaller garment."
Obviously, I am not suggesting that there is no room for creativity in our worship. However, we must recognize the need to properly channel this creativity. There is ample room within the mitzvot, on their basic level, for each person to leave his mark. Although wearing tefillin has a uniform procedure in a formal sense, as far as spiritual content is concerned, no two people don their tefillin in the same way.
So, to summarize, we must exercise a dual caution with regard to adopting chumrot. 1. We must honestly assess our spiritual level and avoid overreaching ourselves and adopting practices which are not consonant with our level. 2. We must try to find our own personal expression within the standard level of mitzva observance required by the Torah. In order for our own creativity to come through, we must do not have to adopt a personal brand of Judaism expressing our unique qualities.
(Originally delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Matot-Mas'ei 5757.)