Vows and promises are powerful things. This Story Shulamis is adapted from Peninnah Schram’s Stories One Generation tells Another.
Many years ago in a far place a young woman, a princess, went for a walk in the country wearing a fine gown of gold and silver. As curious as she was beautiful, she decided to explore along paths she had never been, deeper and deeper into the woods. After awhile, she came to a well.
“Good”, she said to herself, “I am so thirsty, I will just sit in this bucket, lower myself for a drink” which she did, but was unable to pull herself back up. What did she do then? She began to cry for help so a passerby would hear. After a long time, a young man walking nearby heard her cries. He went over to the well, looked down and saw a strange form in gold and silver. “Are you human or demon?” he shouted down. “ I am human, pull me up, I have no more strength” “Swear to me you are human, and if you are, then when I raise you up you must marry me” She was very cold down in the well, so she agreed. The young man pulled on the ropes, and soon the young woman was standing next to him and she saw how handsome was the young man and with a wonderful smile.
“Now that I have saved you, and you are more beautiful than I imagined, you must marry me immediately”, Said the young man. Who are your family?, the woman asked guardedly. No worries, I am from a respected Jewish family, a Kohen. “I thank you for saving me, but you must first meet my parents and ask their permission to marry?
“I will wait, then, until I meet your parents” he said, “give me your word that you will marry no one else, and that will assure me of our pledge.” “My word of pledge without witnesses? The young woman asked with a smile. “Look, there is a weasel, and the well for witnesses, and besides, we have the stars in heaven above us too”
“Agreed” answered the groom to be. And he promised as they walked to come to her parents’ home soon. They parted, repeating their promise to be true.
Each day the young woman waited for the young man, but he never came. Days into months into years. But she remembered his strength, his smile, his promise. With time, more and more suitors came to marry her. At first she simply refused each one, giving an excuse. She did not speak of her pledge to anyone, though, and after a time she began to feign madness to keep her secret and her pledge, acting strangely, tearing out her hair, bursting into song, or into silence. After awhile no more suitors came.
And what happened to the young man? He returned to the city and did not remain faithful to his pledge. He married another, and before long they had a son. One day, when the child was three months old, he fell asleep in the garden, and his throat was pierced by a weasel’s fangs. The sorrow was deep in that home. After awhile the couple had a second child, whom they watched carefully – and he was strong and healthy. One day when the child was three years old, he ran out into the garden, quickly climbed up a well, lost his balance and fell to his death. The mother hearing his scream ran over but too late. She was inconsolable, and kept repeating “Why? Why?” When the mourning period was over the grieving wife came to her husband to ask if he know why the children had died so strangely. “Husband have you hidden something from me? Have you ever broken a pledge? There must be a curse on us for all this to happen. Perhaps by telling me the truth we can prevent even more unhappiness” When the husband heard his wife’s words he realized he must confess, that he was responsible for this grief. He fell on his knees, wept and revealed what had happened in the wood so long ago when he rescued the princess.
His young wife listened, then walked over to the window and looked at the stars for counsel. After a few moments, she knew what to say. “We must go and get a divorce, and then you must find the young woman to whom you gave your sacred word to marry. Only then can we all find happiness and peace in our lives
When the young man arrived in the town where his betrothed lived, he asked about her. Everyone told him “ She’s crazy that one, no one would want her for a wife” but after awhile, the young man was direct to her home. At first the family tried to make excuses why he could not visit. But he said, “bring 3 witnesses, I promise to take her with any defects she has” Only then they allowed him in. When the young man saw his betrothed, he was shocked by the change in her appearance. She looked like a wild woman, but even now he saw traces of her loveliness, and her smile and he loved her.
He approached her and softly whispered” I have brought 3 witnesses, but I have also brought with me the memory of our original and true witnesses, the weasel, the well and the stars in the heavens” When the young woman heard these words, she looked up to see the young man. Her eyes became clear and bright, her loveliness returned, and she spoke slowly with her true clear voice. “I have stayed with my promise to remain faithful to you, for once a sacred oath has been taken, it cannot be broken”
Upon hearing these words, the young man wept. Then he told his betrothed what had happened “ What happened to my children was because of my broken promise – for that I must atone. But now, my love, if your love for me remains as strong as my feeling for you, let us be married – with your parents permission, of course. Her parents wept and granted their permission to marry the daughter, if she consented. So she did, and they were married. They had many children together and lived a life filled with happiness and contentment.
I have a few minor problems with this story: Firstly: what of the vows to his first wife – doesn’t this divorce break those? And is it really wise to make a binding pledge at first sight under the stars? Can people really go crazy if a promise of marriage is unfulfilled? We know the answer is yes, sometimes they do.
There are many more stories like this in Jewish tradition. Childless Hannah pledges her son to the Temple if she conceives. Not only in Jewish tradition, but Everywhere- Childhood is full of these stories –“ I’ll let your child go if you guess my name – could it be “Rumpelstilskin” – well then you gave your word, you must let the child go.”
The Kol Nidre prayer that we say on the eve of Yom Kippur has always bothered me. I was in y Synagogue’s office one day in early October, when the phone rang, and it was someone from the local press asking what the words Kol Nidre meant for an article about the upcoming holiday. Well, it’s from the prayer -It means “all our vows” I helpfully added. But I thought to myself and did not say– we pray that they be nullified. Unravel the words? forget about the obligations of our souls? Is this right, I thought – what would the outside world think of us –and what do I think of us- we are obviously not folks of our word, if we pray each year that they be discounted!
I knew the tradition arose from the Spanish Inquisition, where many were forced to falsely vow. I know that we are fallible, and sometimes stuff happens, even after an honest try we just cannot fulfill our word. But still it left me uneasy. Until I learned of the tale of Jepthahs’(Yeftach’s) daughter. Here’s a summary. Yeftach is the soldier, son of a prostitute, he rises to power. He takes a lot of pride in his strength. His nation, Israel calls on him to lead them in a fight against Ammon. He feels, or thinks he feels, God’s presence in his life and he knows he’s doing right – doing God’s work, helping his nation. He makes an oath with God: “If I win, If I get back safely, the first thing I see when I get into the town, the first thing out of the door of my house, I will offer to God as sacrifice. He wins. He comes home, and his daughter dances through the doorway. The text said: and he did as he had vowed. and so it became a custom to say dirges for the daughter of Yeftah. (Judges 11:28)
Oh, my God! This stupid man, thinking he felt close to God, actually thought that Creator wants him to sacrifice his daughter. According to midrash, Yeftah was as stupid as a block of wood, that’s why he lost his daughter. What made him think that’s what God wanted? Drunk with his own sense of power and self righteousness – he took his own words to be powerful law and murdered. Joel Grishaver notes: He could have gotten the high priest, Pinchas, to annul the vow, but he was too proud a “leader “ to ask anyone to help him. He stupidly put one vow above all the other teachings, for example in our tradition that to save a life is greater than almost all the other laws. Yeftah’s kind of thinking can turn a religion dangerously cruel and radical.
So yes, vows are important , to us all. If I promise to marry you I really will come for you. But our word, even our vow is not more important than life, than truth. The story of Yeftah’s daughter shows us powerfully that Kol nidre is the perhaps counterbalance to taking ourselves and our words too seriously –seriously enough to do hurt. We must accept and embrace our own limitations even as we strive to be honorable and keep our promises. We make mistakes, our word is not divine law. Perhaps that is what Kol Nidre is for. G’mar Chatimah Tovah – may you be sealed for Goodness this Yom Kippur.