One of the primary techniques within the Jewish art of words, when seeking to establish the precise interpretation of a Hebrew term, is to examine the different ways it is used in the Bible. Of course, you could just go to the dictionary, but the synonyms and terse explanations of a textbook definition don’t seem to offer quite the same richness as a study of the way a word is lived out in a narrative. I tried this method, in preparation for tonight, with the word neder, the operative one in the phrase kol nidrei, all of my vows, and was intrigued by what I found. Two usages stuck out in particular. In fact, in each case, the word is initially deployed in exactly the same manner, but what follows makes all the difference.

The first occurs early in the story of Jacob, as he flees from home after cheating his brother Esau out of their father’s blessing. He’s a young man, out in the world on his own for the first time, and on the very opening night of his journey he comes to rest in a place he will later call Bethel, placing a rock beneath his head as a pillow, and falling into a deep sleep in which he dreams of a ladder stretching between heaven and earth, with angels passing back and forth along its rungs. It is a dream that seems to awaken him into his first intimation of sacred purpose, or, at the very least, the realization that there is more in life to be accomplished than the occasional petty larceny of a benediction or a birthright. Vayidor Ya’akov neder, the Torah tells us. And Jacob vowed a vow, saying that if God would be with him, and allow him to return someday in safety, then he, Jacob, would come back to this place that he had established as a shrine, and dedicate to God one tenth of all he possessed (which amounts, more or less, to a standard agent’s cut.) Jacob fulfills this vow, several chapters and many years later, bringing his large family in tow along with a wealth of livestock and know-how. The act of making, and keeping, a neder has given shape to his life, the coherence and clear trajectory of a commitment made in youth, realized in the vigor of manhood, and ultimately fulfilled as old age approaches. The neder has gathered together the tattered fringes of experience into meaning.

The second example is out of the book of Judges, and is the story of a lesser known character, but one who, like Jacob, struggles in his youth. This is Yiftach, anglicized as Jeptha, the illegitimate son of a prostitute and an elder of Gilead, who is outcast, and an outlaw, until his natural gifts of strength and leadership are recognized as potentially of service in a war against the Ammonites. Jeptha rises to the challenge, seeing it, like Jacob, as the chance to ascend to a greater purpose. Vayidor yiftakh neder, the text says. On the eve of battle, as he gathered himself together in contemplative prayer, Jeptha made a neder, saying that, if given victory, he would sacrifice to God the first creature to approach him as he returned home. He wins the war and then, in a surprisingly Greek flourish, is greeted on the doorstep of his house by his daughter, his only child, banging on a timbrel in celebration. Unlike in the story of the binding of Isaac, when the horrific act is called off at the last minute, this one is carried through to the end, the gruesome conclusion to a tale whose only ethical message seems to be the counterintuitive proposition that it is important to learn how to break your word.

These are actually the two most significant appearances of the word neder in the Bible, but the concept has a rich, though ambiguous, lore in the rabbinic tradition. In fact, there is an entire tractate of the Talmud called Nedarim, expanding the brief material on the subject found in the book of Numbers into eleven extensive chapters of discourse, dealing primarily with “the binding quality of a spoken vow.” The neder essentially boils down to the formula, “I swear to do this, or not to do that”, a solemn assertion that you will either perform a specific deed, or refrain from one. Because, as we have seen in the biblical examples, it is done in relation to God, whether as a direct appeal or through the invocation of the Holy Name, a vow is understood to initiate a sacred obligation of great consequence. There is no evident provision in Torah for the annulling of a vow, with the predictably patriarchal exception of the ability of a father or husband to nullify the neder of a woman. The rabbis later evolved the method of hatarat nedarim–a formal act of cancellation that is at the root of the kol nidrei prayer–but they acknowledged being on shaky halakhic ground in doing so, though they felt it was important to make the effort nonetheless. This was because they recognized a neder as possessing an intense, and, in some cases, almost sinister power, as if bordering on the black arts. They by no means saw it as a mandatory religious act–it was over and above the performance of every day mitzvot, like a form of extra credit born out of a zeal with the potential to carry the practitioner awfully close to a transgression of the third commandment: you shall not take the name of your Lord in vain. Reading in the book of Ecclesiastes a stern warning that vows be fulfilled soon after their undertaking, Rabbi Meir commented, “better [is the one] who does not vow at all.” A few generations later, Shmuel went so far as to claim that, “even when one fulfills his vow he is still called wicked.” You can still hear distinct traces of this ambivalence in the contemporary parlance of orthodox Jews, in which the little phrase b’li neder–“without vowing”–is often affixed to anything that bears a resemblance to a promise, not to abet a lie, in the manner of “finger’s crossed”, but to indicate that the speaker is acting in good faith, while steering well clear of anything that smacks of an oath.

I want to try to shift this concept to a more humanistic foundation. It’s hard not to hear in the phrasing of the Torah’s nedarim an attempt to strike a bargain with God, a kind of supernatural tit-for-tat, like a foxhole prayer or the kind of thing a football fan might mutter on fourth-and-goal: if only you do this for me, I promise that I will… But presumably God doesn’t need a favor in the same way that a human being might, so it may be more helpful to think of these vows as offers of tribute, rather than donations-in-kind. If you help me succeed I will acknowledge that I did this in your honor, that my glory is yours, that you are the wind beneath my wings. I elevate the nature of my deeds and the sense of virtue and intensity inherent in my commitments by laying them upon your altar. I declare that what I do is not just a whim, or haphazard, but born of sacred devotion and purpose, and by taking this vow I am enabled to magnify this sense of resolve, by formally declaring my aspirations and marrying my intention to my deed. In this sense, a vow is a kind of public declaration, articulation or exteriorization, like breaking down the door as you come out of the closet, which pulls the inner life out of the murkiness of doubt and hesitancy, closes off the possibility of taking refuge in obfuscation, and puts within your own two hands the very power of your conviction; like an addict taking the pledge; like the fugitive Jacob in the middle of the night, needing something strong to help him do the next thing, and finding it in a vision of ladders. A vow, ideally, is the most honest form of speech, the opposite of hypocrisy, a word bound to an action by the invocation of the sacred and giving conscious shape to life by restoring integrity to words. But this may also explain why people feel such shame and defeat when they are unable to honor their vows: I promised, out of my deepest sense of right and wrong that I would dedicate myself to a course of action, and I failed. The result is guilt and even despair, the loss of attunement to the veracity of purpose itself. I think it was fear of just this kind of sacrilege that implanted the bias against vowing in our ancient sages–the recognition that the failure of a neder does not just damage the individual put pollutes sacred values themselves with a creeping nihilism, a prospect so disheartening that it led them to advocate against the very act of rising to the challenge of a vow.

But they recognized another problem too, reading it out of the story of Jeptha. The principle that vows give shape to life can apply equally when they are drawn out of impulses that are destructive, and so we have to face the fact that another dangerous possibility inherent in the nature of vows, in addition to the fear that you will break your word, is the fear that you might keep it. I want to illustrate this point with a personal story. It’s really a confession, so hold on to your hats. Elise, my wife, and I met in Jerusalem, and spent the first several months of our relationship immured against our respective families. When she first saw me around mine, she said, I’m paraphrasing a bit, “I watched this smart, articulate, funny, (since I’m paraphrasing let’s say handsome) man that I’d been falling in love with all of a sudden turn before my very eyes into a twelve year old.” (With apologies to twelve year olds, you should live and be well–you’re doing the right thing–but it’s not an age adults are necessarily expected to revisit emotionally.) While I think marriage has seasoned me, it’s a trap I still fall into sometimes. When I was at my mother’s house for Passover this year, I ended up in a shouting match with my sister, who I love, over nothing specific. It arose out of the nature of who we remembered each other being, and how old grievances were triggered by once again inhabiting the family constellation. But before I knew it, I was back on the road to Deerfield, prematurely, with one thought pulsing in my brain: I am right and she is wrong, and I will not be the one to apologize. When we spoke a few weeks later she told me she had been thinking the same thing. Together, we were exemplifying the state of being the great Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai described as “the place where we are right,” saying: “The place where we are right/Is hard and trampled/Like a yard./But doubts and loves/Dig up the world/Like a mole, a plow.”

The rabbis were actually quite puzzled by the story of Jeptha, as we read in the classical Midrash. They knew from their own legal code that if a man vows to sacrifice a non-kosher animal it is considered a vow of no consequence, so how could the sacrifice of a child be allowed to occur? Couldn’t Jeptha have sought an annulment from the High Priest of his time, a man named Pinchas? Yes, they say, he could have, and they weave a story to demonstrate why this didn’t happen. Pinchas, the high priest, said: He is in need of me, let him come to me! And Jeptha said, I am the chief of the warriors of Israel and I should have to go to Pinchas? It was between this and this, the Midrash says, that the girl perished. The surface of a fatalistic fable is peeled away to expose the stubborn indignation that lies beneath. The force propelling a neder is shown to be, not sacred purpose, but implacable self-righteousness, the rush of hot blood to the head in response to some affront that is allowed to linger and grow into a creature that resides and consumes, even comes to afford some kind of sickly pleasure or maybe wards off the specter of some less definite state of mind like confusion or sorrow. This, too, can provide a shape to life, a sense of direction, a savage altar on which to consecrate words and deeds, until, through habit and dedication, they take on the strength of a vow. Then we return one day to discover we have killed the joy that was waiting to greet us on our doorstep.

I’ve alluded a few times to the prayer that gives this evening its name, the one that sent me on my little journey to explore the meaning of the word neder. It’s a strange prayer, really not a prayer at all, but a legal formula, as if we were chanting a section of the tax code to a lilting melody. The content seems, at first glance, unethical, amounting to a ritualistic breaking of our words: all vows, prohibitions, oaths, and consecrations…all of them are undone, cancelled, null and void. This has given fodder to Jew-haters over the years, who claim it is proof we are not to be trusted, and who are seemingly impervious to explanations that its efficacy is not interpersonal but internal. What it really amounts to, in its rhythm and spiritual intensity, is an incantation, here at the start of the Day of Atonement, inviting us to begin to unbind ourselves, whether from the commitments we have aspired to but have lost the endurance to sustain, or the passions that have ensnared us to the point that we have become devotees of our worst instincts. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, in his book The Guide to Jewish Prayer, described this “release of vows” as the “ceremonial act freeing oneself from…chains and granting one’s soul the liberty to stand before God without this cumbersome burden.” It seeks to provoke in us that very loving self-doubt that Amichai called the plow, or the mole, that turns over the hardened soil in the place where we are right. But this momentary release is only the beginning. Now, despite the risk of failure, despite the sting of shame, despite the whispering of nihilism and despair, we are invited to brave a new commitment to our integrity and the shape of our lives; to vow, in the name of all we hold sacred, like a fugitive, safely beyond the perimeter of his pursuers, who lays his head against a stone and begins to dream.