Why do people make vows, especially when those vows express their desire to make positive changes in their Jewish life?
Admittedly, there are countless scenarios that may prompt a person to make such a vow. Nevertheless, I believe that today’s daf (Nedarim 14b) alludes to the two types of major events that often serve as an inspiration to upgrade our level of religious observance. And to explain what I mean, we must review a discussion in today’s daf which begins by seeking to explain the expression of הַנּוֹדֵר בַּתּוֹרָה, ‘one who vows by the Torah’, and which the Gemara assumes to refer to someone who makes a vow by a Torah scroll.
The question then asked by the Gemara is what kind of scenario is being discussed when someone makes a vow by a Torah scroll – to which two different situations are described: דְּמַחֲתָא אוֹרָיְיתָא אַאַרְעָא – ‘when the Torah scroll is on the ground’, and נָקֵט לַהּ בִּידֵיהּ – ‘when the Torah scroll is in your hand’.
There may be some who interpret these statements literally. However, I understand them metaphorically. Consequently, in terms of the former (‘when the Torah scroll is on the ground’), I think it refers to moments in our life when we feel distant from Torah living and when we feel that, through the choices that we have made, we have done a disservice to our Jewish heritage and our identity. At such moments there are those who utter some sort of vow to themselves to make positive changes in their Jewish life and to upgrade their level of religious observance.
Contrasting this, there are times when we feel euphoric about our relationship with God and Torah and when we feel that we are able to grasp the Torah with both hands (‘when the Torah scroll is in your hand’). And in those exalted moments of inspiration we similarly make some sort of vow to make positive changes in our life and to upgrade our religious observance.
The question, however, is how do we grow when the Torah scroll is neither on the ground nor in our arms? In those situations, how do we generate motivation to commit ourselves to growth?
The answer, I believe, is offered by Vilna Gaon (Even Shelema 4:9), who himself bases his teaching on the story of the angels of Yaakov’s dream who were either ascending and descending (see Bereshit 28:12), as well as a number of other biblical verses (see Devarim 28:13 and Mishlei 15:24), and who states: אם אין האדם משתדל לעלות תמיד מעלה מעלה על כרחו ירד מטה מטה – ‘if a person does not endeavour to constantly ascend, a little at a time, then they will necessarily descend, a little at a time’.
What I think this means is that while there may be flashpoints in our lives דְּמַחֲתָא אוֹרָיְיתָא אַאַרְעָא (‘when the Torah scroll is on the ground’) and נָקֵט לַהּ בִּידֵיהּ (‘when the Torah scroll is in your hand’) which stimulate us to make changes in our life, we need to realize that our relationship with Torah is not static. Instead, precisely because לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא – ‘it is not in heaven’ (Devarim 30:12), this means that there is a gravitational pull on our connection to Torah, such that ‘if a person does not endeavour to constantly ascend… then they will necessarily descend’. Given this, we must push, and grow, because absent of our endeavour, we slowly fall (nb. think of Keepie uppies and the effort it takes to ensure that the ball does not fall).
In conclusion, while there are those who vow to grow when overcome with inspiration, and while there are those who vow to grow when overcome with desperation, the ideal is to vow to grow because we want to keep on growing while acknowledging that if we don’t, we will begin to fall.