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Thought for the Day: Oaths and Vows for Which You Off the Hook

If you want an inkling of the greatness of Dovid HaMelech, consider the end of his life.  He was bedridden and physically unable to generate any body heat.  One beloved son had already rebelled and been put to death.  Another had raped his Dovid's daughter (the son's half-sister) and been dispatched by the first son.  Now another son was mounting a rebellion.  What else could happen?  Bat Sheva comes in, unannounced and without being summoned, and says: "But you promised!" -- referring to the fact that Dovid had sworn an oath that her son, Shlomo would be the next king.  Where do you see his greatness?  Think back to last time one of your kids came back with, "But you promised!"  How calm, cool, and collected were you?  And the only stress you have is tuition.

Dovid HaMelech, though, retained his composure; nay, he sprang into action.  That's greatness.  Yet... it does beg the question: how was Dovid able to swear to such a thing?  When people are work as me, "Do you have a minute?"; I answer, "I don't know, but if I do -- it's yours."  (They don't roll their eyes nearly as much as my children do, of course.)  But it's true.  No one knows what will happen in the next minute, let alone years ahead.  Taking a vow is a very serious matter.  Now a days we avoid oaths at all costs.  Literally: if two people are involved in a financial dispute without proper documentation, so the options are pay or swear, we pay up.

In fact, this is not the first example in Tanach of swearing an oath to do something in the future.  Yaakov required Yosef to swear that he would bury Yaakov in Eretz Yisrael.  True enough, the medrash tells us that Yosef was able to use that oath to convince Paroh to let him fulfill his his father's wishes.  None the less, that was a happy happenstance; without that, Yosef would not have been able to fulfill Yaakov's wishes; what would that mean about the oath?

Dovid HaMelech's issue had another dimension of difficulty.  What if Shlomo had not been fit to rule?  What if another son turned out to be more qualified?  The oath seems almost reckless.

The mishna in the third perek of Nedarim explains that a person is let of the hook for four kinds of oaths.  The second is an oath to make your point: "I'll eat my hat if there weren't seven million people grabbing for the same Cabbage Patch Doll!"  Of course there weren't and you won't, but this oath is a way of communicating feelings and emotions that are absolutely true, but that cannot be contained in any words.  Then there are mistaken oaths, such as: "I'll eat my hat if I was the one who took the last cookie!"  In fact, you did take the last cookie, but you didn't realize (the room was dark, you were sure there was another box, etc).  Then there are oaths taken in response to circumstance out of your control.    These come in two varieties: (1) a friend wants to come to you for dinner, but has a previous engagement that he can't get out of, so he asks you to swear, "I'll eat my hat if you don't come to dinner!".. and then he really can't make it.  (2) robbers threaten to take your grain, so you swear, "I'll eat my hat if I didn't already dedicate this crop to the Temple!"

Finally, which is really the first on the list, is זירוז/catalyst.  That is, "I'll eat my hat unless I get your buried in Eretz Yisrael", or "I'll eat my hat unless I make your son king."  This is much more than saying, "I'll do my best."  This is really saying, "If my best isn't good enough, I'll get better.", "If there isn't a way, I'll create a way."  Of course, a person is still a person, but in the capable hands of g'dolim of the stature of Dovid HaMelech and Yosef HaTzadik, the oath can propel them into a greatness that would otherwise not be possible.

Unless your last name is "HaMelech" or "HaTzadik", though, best not to try this at home.

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