On the eve of the secular New Year, December 31st, people are preoccupied with resolutions: I will lose ten pounds, exercise three times a week, call my mother more often. They make vows, oaths, promises to themselves to be thinner, healthier, more mindful of others. But in the wake of the Jewish New Year, on the Eve of Yom Kippur, what do we do? We annul our vows. Isn’t it odd that we Jews – “people of the word” (as Amos Oz calls us) – cancel out our promises? Before the Heavenly court above and the human court below (be yeshiva shel ma’alah u-vi-yeshiva shel matta), we cancel all our verbal obligations kol nidrei, ve-esarei, ve-haramei ve-konamei u-kinusei ve-khinuyei…. When we are so desperately in need of “passionate intensity” to mend the world, to do tikkun ‘olam, why do we undermine the binding nature of our past promises in Kol Nidrei?
There is something about the weight of words and of vows, in particular, that is central to the process of Teshuva (repentance). It entails both a commitment to the seriousness of language and a release from its strictures. (As an exercise, go home tonight and flip through your Yom Kippur Machzor: how many of the statements in the confession, of the ‘al chet she-chatanu are related to the use of language?) This evening I want to look at one particular example of a Neder (vow) in Tanakh, Hannah’s prayer for a child which we read on Rosh HaShanah, and consider how that serves as a model for spiritual transformation. Then I’d like to consider the significance of canceling our nederim (our vows) on Kol Nidrei before moving into the most solemn day of the year.
Let’s first consider the significance of vows, in general. The public marriage ceremony, for example, involves the common formula: “Do you take this woman/man to be your lawful wedded wife/husband?”: to which the bride or groom responds: “I do!” or at the chuppah we say: harei ’at mequdeshet li ke-dat Moshe ve-Yisrael. This is an example of a verbal commitment, with the community and God as your witness, which irrevocably changes your social and legal status (and you might even get a tax break). Linguists call these kind of declarations “speech acts” (J. L. Austin’s term). That is they ‘get something done’ through language. What role does God play in this general class of “speech acts” and what we “get done” when we make a vow?
A neder (vow) is a complex, conditional statement. It is associated with an ‘If… then…’ formula. And, like many promises, it is contingent upon the fulfillment of a promise; in the religious context, it often entails a dedication to God. Jacob, for example, vows [that is, he makes a neder] to set up a monument in Bethel if God takes care of him over the course of his sojourn in Padam Aram (Gen. 28.20, 32.13). The chieftain [shofet], Jephthah, vows to sacrifice anything (or anyone) that comes to greet him upon his return if he is successful in the battle against the Ammonites (Judges 11.30-31). And we know how that story ends: he who so rashly opened his mouth, yiftah piv, ended up sacrificing his daughter. Most auspiciously, Hannah vows, va-tidor neder, that if she conceives a child, she will dedicate that child to God (1 Sam. 1.11).
In the opening of the book of Samuel, we are introduced to Hannah, wife of Elkanah, and soon-to-be mother of the prophet and judge of Israel, Shmuel. Hannah is completely abject. Her husband, though he loves her deeply, does not understand her desire for a child. In dismay at her weeping and fasting, Elkanah declares: “Am I not better than ten sons to you” (1 Sam. 1:8). To make matters worse, Peninah, her husband’s other wife (called “the tzarah,” rival wife or “constrictor”) has many children and taunts Hannah, “for God had closed her womb” (v. 7, cf. v. 6). Every year they go up to Shiloh, where the Tabernacle is, and they offer sacrifices there. One year, in utter desperation, Hannah turns directly to God, at the entrance to the sanctuary (where the Cohen, Eli, watches her from afar):
In her wretchedness, she prayed to the LORD, weeping all the while.
And she made this vow:
“O LORD of Hosts, if You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and will remember me and not forget Your maidservant, and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child,
I will dedicate him to the LORD for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head.”
(1 Sam. 1:10-11)
י) וְהִיא מָרַת נָפֶשׁ וַתִּתְפַּלֵּל עַל ה’ וּבָכֹה תִבְכֶּה:
(יא) וַתִּדֹּר נֶדֶר וַתֹּאמַר ה’ צְבָאוֹת
אִם רָאֹה תִרְאֶה בָּעֳנִי אֲמָתֶךָ
וּזְכַרְתַּנִי וְלֹא תִשְׁכַּח אֶת אֲמָתֶךָ
וְנָתַתָּה לַאֲמָתְךָ זֶרַע אֲנָשִׁים
וּנְתַתִּיו לַה’ כָּל יְמֵי חַיָּיו
וּמוֹרָה לֹא יַעֲלֶה עַל רֹאשׁוֹ:
To quote one of my students: Why does Hanna ask for a child and then, in the very next sentence, willingly promise to give that child up? Effectively, once her wish is fulfilled, she takes the child when he has been weened and dedicates him to the service in the Mishkan, the Sanctuary at Shiloh. In saying “no razors shall ever touch his head” she essentially dedicates him as a Nazir, a kind of non-congenital priest/Cohen. And she names him Shmuel, for he was “asked for from God”. Without even knowing the nature of her supplication, Eli blesses her upon leaving:
May the God of Israel grant your request [שֵׁלָתֵךְ] which you asked of Him [אֲשֶׁר שָׁאַלְתְּ מֵעִמּוֹ] (v. 17).
Like Shimshon’s mother, who is told by the angel that her son will be a Nazir in utero (Judges 13), Samuel will be dedicated to the service of his people; he will be an emissary of God – as priest, prophet, and judge. And, as a Nazir, the crown of hair on his head will set him apart. In the early history of the Israelites, he will inaugurate not one but two kings: both Saul and David.
But let us return to Hannah who prays. How is she transformed by her prayer? It is a neder uttered in bitterness, marat nefesh¸ a prayer unto God, ve-titapelel ‘al HaShem, while she weeps profusely, bekhoh tivkeh. And yet it is one of the most lucid, the most audacious deals ever made in the Tanakh. It is silent, Eli hears no words…only sees her lips moving: But we, like the omniscient God, hear her private words:
If You will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate him to the LORD for all the days of his life. (v. 11)
What does this neder entail? It sounds like a sacrifice on par with the binding of Isaac, ‘Akedat Yitzchak. Yet God does not test her, as he tested Abraham. Rather, she makes this sacrifice of her own volition. I would like to read her neder radically as the source of her transformation. In order to make a shift within herself, to enable a physiological change, for “God to remember her” and open her womb (for it had been divinely closed), she must give that child back to God. She must realize that she is the conduit, the vessel of this gift from God, as a she’ela (request/loan). In this realization, she opens herself up to the deepest Divine Providence, hashgacha pratit.
When she names him, Shmuel, she explains: “I asked the LORD for him [כִּי מֵה’ שְׁאִלְתִּיו ]” (v. 20). One might ask: why is he called Shmuel and not Shaul (the “asked for one”)? Why the mem in his name? To remind us, the reader of the source: mi-Adonai, Shmuel is the she’elah, the request from God: אֲשֶׁר שָׁאַלְתְּ מֵעִמּוֹ, as Eli the Cohen had blessed her.
Yet, when she goes to dedicate the child to the service in the Mishkan (presumably at the ripe age of two or three years), she turns the tables around and she becomes the giver, the one who loans him to God. Upon dedicated this young child to service in the Sanctuary at Shiloh, she reminds Eli:
It was this boy I prayed for; and the LORD has granted me what I asked of Him. I, in turn, hereby lend him to the LORD. For as long as he lives he is lent to the LORD. אָנֹכִי הִשְׁאִלְתִּהוּ לַה’ כָּל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר הָיָה הוּא שָׁאוּל לַה’” (vv. 27-28)
What Hannah’s neder [oath] does is transform her consciousness about herself so that she is not just a conduit of God’s will, but one who gives back to God. She is not primarily a taker, but a giver. Where she was once the woman who asked for a child from the LORD, with the realization that the child was only on “loan” until he was weened, now she gives the child back to God. She lends him, hishilitihu leHashem.
In prayer, in the deepest place of supplication, we must reach that point of release where what we ask for is also what we must be willing to give up. I mean this as a seeker, as one who aspires to find that place within myself, an entry point for the divine. It is a hollow chiseled out, a process of emptying (as Hannah poured herself out in prayer) in order to be filled. This is the deepest prayer: when request [she’elah] and grant [hasha’alah] – the courage to give that gift back to God – are intertwined in love. In recompense, God goes on to remember Hannah again, and she has five more children (1 Sam. 2:21).
So if the neder, the vow, is such a powerful spiritual tool for transformation, why do we open the most religious, most solemn Day of the year by cancelling our oaths and vows? Precisely because language is so powerful that it can lock us into images of ourselves that we cannot live up to. We need to break those false images, those possibly impossible verbal commitments, in order to transform ourselves anew. We give ourselves over to that total humility on Yom Kippur – released from promises we could not keep, wholly aware of our human frailty. While Hannah, according to a tradition in the Talmud, conceived (and perhaps vowed her vow) on Rosh HaShana (b. Rosh Hashana 11a), she is released from her vow the moment she “lends” the child back to God. And that’s what we are doing when we enter the gates of Repentance on Yom Kippur. We shall be released on Kol Nidrei.
There is a famous story about Franz Rosenzweig, the German Jewish philosopher, and author of The Star of Redemption. He was on the verge of conversion to Christianity, when he entered a synagogue in Berlin on the Eve of Yom Kippur (the year was 1913), and heard the mesmerizing words and melody of Kol Nidrei. A few days later he wrote to his closest friends, “I shall remain a Jew.” He then reshaped his life, rethought his identity, and devoted himself to a sincere return to Judaism, moving from the periphery of Jewish life to its center. Presumably Rosenzweig did not understand the significance of the Kol Nidrei liturgy, but the music and the affective mystery of the Aramaic prayer penetrated his soul; the solemn resonance of the words invited him back in.
I bless you all, as you enter Yom Kippur this year, with the openness to the power of prayer. Let it transform you from being the receiver of God’s gifts to being the giver, who bestows blessing on the world.