I came across something that I found very interesting. Notice: I write that I found it interesting. No guarantees… It's about being stuck to the point that you are willing to do anything to start moving, even making a vow, and about how to be less harsh with yourself and your society.
People make vows out of desperation. They really don't trust themselves. This may be coming from a good place, after all, when you come closer to Rosh HaShanah, and begin to ask yourself the hard questions, you may notice that trusting yourself hasn't always worked out well. A vow can be like the white line on the highway; you just don't cross this line. Living without this sort of structure is like being on a road where the line is broken every few feet. You can cross if you trust that you can do it safely. Sometimes you just don't feel all that safe…
In general, making a vow isn't a good idea. We are meant to be able to function with freedom, and not be so afraid of the world. Just refrain from whatever the Torah tells you is forbidden without making any additions. There are exceptions. A nazir, whose vow is presented in the Torah, makes a vow to refrain from wine, ritual impurity (that comes from contact with the dead), and cutting his hair. Even this kind of vow is not ideal, and for that reason, one of the very great Kohanim, Shimon HaTzadik, always avoided officiating at the conclusion of the nazir's vow. There were exceptions. One exception is a man who saw an execution. Instead of being horrified, he began to obsess on the risks that the convicted criminals took. He realized that to them, it must have been worth taking the risk of death to do what their hearts desired. He recognized that he was wrong; and that had done terrible damage to themselves and to others. The second was a case of a man who came from a desperately poor family. They were so poverty stricken that he never saw his own image, because they didn't own a mirror. One day, when pasturing his father's sheep at a pond, he saw himself and was so infatuated by his appearance that he made a vow to be a nazir.
There is a leniency for women. When a woman makes a vow, her husband may annul it that day. I knew this law for years, and I often pictured the woman being annoyed at her husband. "He should trust her to keep her vow," I thought. In fact, the Talmud points out; the exact opposite response was far more common. She would be upset if he didn't annul the vow. Not all vows can be annulled; only those that would cause her to suffer or would impede on their personal relationship. The Gemarra tells us that the woman sometimes would feel that if her husband didn't annul her vow, it means that her suffering or their relationship isn't important to him; she'd be really angry. What kind of vow causes suffering? This is really what I want to talk about.
Suppose in a moment of (fill in the word...) a woman says, "I will never wash any of my clothes". Is wearing dirty clothes real suffering? The answer is "yes". Some maintain that this is even harsher than her saying "I'll never wash my body again"! The Ben Ish Chai, one of my favorite commentators, explains why never washing your clothes is viewed as an agonizing mistake to make. Quoting the Talmud, he says it leads to ennui (sort of toxic boredom) and emotional confusion that is even more agonizing than filth, which in the end can be easily washed away.
In this week's Parshah, the Torah commands the appointment of judges, police, and a monarch. Each one has a specific function. "They are compared to the garments of the entire Jewish people. These roles foster our having a defined identity, just as much as the clothes you wear tell the world how you want them to see you and relate to you. The judges are to rule according to Torah (and not according to their own personal worldview). The police are to enforce the decisions of the judges (and not define law via force), and the king is meant to set an example of what being a servant of G-d is really about (not being a servant of his party or of his ego). He is required to have a Torah with him at all times, and to be the living heart of his people."
We live in times when none of these roles are actualized, and we suffer the confusion that societal discord invariably causes". In other words, Ben Ish Chai is telling us what we already know. Our "clothes" are in terrible shape. The laws themselves, the way they are enforced and the example the leaders set are so far from anything real! The confusion is there, and you may feel that being a small individual trying to live by different rules in a corrupt society is just asking for exclusion even mockery. This is the bad news.
The good news is that everything can change! With Rosh Hashanah approaching, focus beyond yourself and see the confusion that is so much part of life in 5775. You have the opportunity to ask Hashem to, so to speak, annul the vow. The Arizal says that the act of annulment is even higher than the sanctity of a vow. Ask Hashem to change the world. Then it's time to ask yourself to change your mini-world too.
Enjoy Elul, it’s the best and sweetest time of the year,