Last year, my family pledged a gift to the Solomon Schechter Day School that stretched our budget, but we were pleased to help fund this Jewish institution. How were we to anticipate that our eldest daughter would announce her marriage plans for the following year in Israel! These financial responsibilities led me to re-examine the text that I read today from the Torah. Leviticus 27, verses 9-15 is about vows, the valuation of gifts to the Sanctuary, penalties and the role of the priests.
What we learn is that contracts are serious.
Vows, even if freely given, are serious.
In Biblical times, should I wish to voluntarily donate money for the maintenance of the Sanctuary and grandly declare that I pledge the value of my goat or my house … I enter into a contractual arrangement that has serious consequences.
Should I wish to retract my vow, redeem or change my pledge, I incur a penalty that allows no compromise. Whatever the value of my pledge—whether it be goat or house—I now will have to pay the value plus a penalty which is equal to a fifth of the original value. Ve’yasaf chamishito al erkecha.
Should I wish to exchange the goat for one of different value—even a higher value—then both goats become “holy unto the Lord”…both become pledged. There is no getting out of this contract.
Hubris or generosity may have prompted the declaration of a freely given gift…but not bekeri (not in casualness) may these vows be made.
In the Hertz Tanach that we use here, the word keri is translated many times as ‘contrary’. I prefer the Stone translation that uses the word ‘casualness’ which is closer to the root meaning.
Chapter 26 is full of God’s terrible admonitions—the tochachot. God threatens that should we deal with Him and His statutes bekeri—in casualness—
then He will deal with us in casualness too. And, even in a ‘fury of casualness’.
God drafts a contract…a covenant with us … and the breaking of this contract has serious consequences.
When Moses went to get the commandments on stone tablets and came down from Mt Sinai to find the Israelites had made an idol, a golden calf…he threw the tablets down and broke them, as we had broken our side of the covenant. And at that time we didn’t even know that there was a contract.
Ignorance of the law is not an excuse.
Not by chance, chapter 27, the very next chapter dictates the laws of freely-entered-into vows. Our vows, if we make them, are to be made with profound seriousness… because the consequences of casualness are even more serious.
In the Bible, keeping our vows is a matter of law. These days, we are more accustomed to saying that it is a matter of integrity.
Integrity is the cornerstone in the building of our character… as well as the maintenance of our Sanctuaries.
Our word must be our bond.