“The Power of a Vow”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the second part of this week’s action-packed parasha, parashat Vayishlach, we read of Jacob’s return to Beth-El, the scene of his memorable “ladder” dream.

22 years earlier, Jacob had vowed (Genesis 28:20-22), that Beth-El would become the site of G-d’s house. But Jacob never honored that vow. Now G-d commands Jacob to return to Beth-El, telling him to fulfill his vow without delay.

In Genesis 35:1, G-d says to Jacob, “Koom ah’lay Bet-El, v’shev shahm, vah’ah’say shahm miz’bay’ach lah’Ayl hah’nir’eh ay’leh’chah b’var’chah’chah mip’nay Eisav ah’chee’chah,” Go up to Beth-El and dwell there, and make an altar there to G-d who appeared to you when you fled from Esau, your brother.

G-d kept his part of the bargain, making Jacob enormously wealthy, but Jacob did not honor his end of the agreement. While waiting for Jacob to fulfill his vow, the Al-mighty beckoned him again and again. However, Jacob repeatedly disregarded the warnings. As a way of alerting Jacob, G-d brought Esau upon him who sought to kill him. In his effort to placate his brother Esau, Jacob sent a huge tribute, exhausting much of his wealth, but Jacob seemed not to realize what was happening. When the angel came and wrestled with him, and Jacob still did not acknowledge that he had failed to fulfill his pledge, tragedy struck Dina in the city of Shechem. There are even those who suggest that Jacob’s negligence precipitated the Divine decree, that his beloved wife, Rachel, would die upon entering the Promised Land.

The Al-mighty said to Himself, “How long will this righteous man suffer and not realize the cause of his suffering?” It is only after the Al-mighty tells Jacob directly, “Koom ah’lay,” Go up to Beth-El, fulfill your vow and build an altar there to G-d, that Jacob realizes what has happened.

G-d says: “When you have trouble, Jacob, you make a vow. But when things are good, you delay paying up?! Your family has been visited with idolatry, sexual violations and murder, and you still fail to properly respond?”

Many commentators are troubled by Jacob’s failure to discharge his obligation, or to even acknowledge his commitment. They therefore suggest that the delay was due to Jacob’s desire to wait until all his twelve sons were born, so that he would be able to fulfill his vow together with the entire House of Israel. But even these righteous calculations were not justified, and Jacob was sorely stricken.

In the summer of 1985, I was dispatched by the late Zalman Bernstein to conduct a study of outreach organizations in Israel on behalf of his Avi Chai Foundation. One of the most fascinating visits was to a group called Arachim, which was founded by two brilliant Russian scientists who heavily promoted the study of Bible codes. The leaders of Arachim were quite reluctant to allow spectators at their seminars, but after some negotiation they allowed me to attend the late Saturday session of a seminar that was being conducted over a Shabbat weekend at a Jerusalem hotel. To assist me, they assigned a gentleman to accompany me, and to explain the various goings-on at the program.

Being a representative of a wealthy foundation, I was a bit surprised (reflecting my own mortal shortcomings) that the person whom they assigned was rather shabbily dressed, had a pronounced limp, and had not even tucked his shirt into his pants. I was wondering why they had obviously made no effort to try to impress me.

After providing me with a basic orientation of Arachim’s methodology and goals, this young man, who was himself a Ba’al Teshuvah (newly religious), informed me that he was also one of the scheduled speakers for the evening. I could hardly imagine what this person could possibly say or do that would impress the skeptical participants.

The evening’s presentations were fascinating, and continued into the wee hours of the morning. At one point, after midnight, my guide approached the podium to address the participants.

He began by relating his own personal saga. He was a former Israeli pilot who was shot down over Syria and captured together with other Israeli soldiers. Although he survived, he was very badly wounded. The Syrians were “kind enough” to amputate his leg below the knee (hence the limp), but unfortunately would not administer anesthesia during the procedure. They threw him into a filthy prison chamber, and even the nurse who came to change his dressings was so repulsed by the sight, that he was left to care for himself with whatever rags he could find. Kept incommunicado, he did not even know whether his compatriots were still alive. After many months of harrowing interrogation and severe torture, they were all united in a single cell.

Although the prisoners had no communication with the outside world, they somehow figured that the festival of Passover was near. Not being religious, they did not know very much, but on the day that they calculated to be Passover, they secured some grape juice and recited whatever parts of the Hagaddah they recalled by heart.

At that makeshift “seder,” my guide said that he made a vow to himself that if he were ever freed, he would start observing the rituals of Judaism, and begin to take his religion more seriously.

Miraculously, he and his compatriots were freed and returned to Israel. At first, he was so overwhelmed to be free and reunited with his family and friends, that he did not at all recall the vow. And when he did finally remember his commitment, something always came up that prevented him from acting on it. “And before long,” he told his audience, “G-d reminded me.”

Although he did not suffer any grave misfortunes, a series of small “events” occurred, to “remind” him of his vow. One of his children fell and broke a leg. His car was hit from behind. His wife went swimming and was briefly swept out to sea. Finally, he came to the realization that he might be responsible for these unfortunate events because of his failure to fulfill his commitment. Little by little, he became more observant, ultimately volunteering to become a guide and speaker for Arachim, and a very inspiring and impressive speaker, I must add.

As Rabbi Yannai (a Jewish sage, of the first half of the third century) says in the Midrash (Tanchumah: Vayishlach): He who vows and does not pay his commitment, will be visited by the ultimate “Bookkeeper” who will say, “Where is that person who made that vow on that day?”

Each of us, at some point in our lives, turns to G-d, sincerely   promising to mend our ways, improve our behavior or to undertake some positive action. But few of us are consistent in fulfilling our commitments. All Jews, of course, as a people, stood at Sinai and declared (Exodus 24:7): “Nah’ah’seh v’nish’mah,” we will do and we will obey (understand). But so many of our brethren today are completely unaware of that commitment. Despite the many Divine reminders over the centuries, we, all too often, fail to respond. It is clear that the Al-mighty is looking at the ledger of His people and saying, “You have not fulfilled your commitments!” Throughout the generations He has gently warned us, and sometimes profoundly warned us.

We Jews who are alive today, have had the good fortune of living in one of the most remarkable generations in history. It may very well be that we are at the threshold of the “end of days.” After all, our generation has witnessed the rise of the State of Israel, the Six Day War, and has seen the intervention of the Al-mighty to a degree that has not been seen since the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai.

There is little question that the Al-mighty is constantly reminding us that it is time for us to fulfill our part of the bargain. Let us not wait until we are severely bruised and battered. Let us join together, young and old, and return to “Beth-El” to build that altar, and profoundly thank the Al-mighty for His abundant goodness and extraordinary kindnesses.

May you be blessed.