Sunday, January 24, 2010


As I was waiting for a bus last Friday morning, a woman approached me. While she was not dressed as a religiously observant woman, she appeared to come from a traditional background. “Do you know where there’s a synagogue open?” she asked me. “I need to talk to a rabbi.”

“The synagogues here are usually open in the morning and then again in the late afternoon,” I told her, starting to think about whom I could call.

“I need to talk to a rabbi,” she said. “I need to ask him a question.”

I nodded, still thinking, but didn’t say anything. Very often, questions for rabbis are about personal matters—sometimes extremely personal ones. So there was nothing to ask here, nothing to say, as I wondered where I should send her. Inspiration struck. “I think I can call someone for you,” I said, taking out my mobile phone.

She said, “My daughter had a fight with her sister a while back and swore that she would never see her again. Now, her sister is in her ninth month of pregnancy and she wants to take back her vow. Is that possible? Is she allowed?”

Jews consider a vow sacred, to the point that some populations strongly discourage the use of the phrase “I swear.” Nevertheless, there are ways to annul vows that were made in the heat of the moment or that were simply ill-advised. I told the woman, “There is a ceremony known as hatarat nedarim—release from vows. It can certainly be done.” And I gave her a description of the brief and simple ceremony.

“I’ll go to the shuk,” the woman said then. “Surely I’ll find an open synagogue there, and a rabbi to advise me.”

I told her, “There’s a store nearby that sells scribal supplies. Ask the proprietor where to go. He’s a good person, and I’m sure that he’ll direct you to a rabbi who will be able to advise you.”

The bus arrived, and both the woman and I got on. I sat down, but felt uneasy. I realized that while I had given the woman useful directions, I hadn’t told her all that I wanted to say.

She was on the phone when I approached her, but when the conversation was over, I leaned toward her and said, “Please listen. I’m not a rabbi’s wife or a rabbi’s daughter. I’m just an ordinary person who happens to be religiously observant. But I wanted to tell you what my heart and my gut are telling me. May I?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Then this is what I have to say,” I told her. “Our God is a God of mercy. He is pleased to see families reunite. Just have your daughter see her sister as soon as possible.”

“And should my daughter just state that she cancels her vow?”

“I think that what matters is that she see her sister,” I said.

“Should she pray?”

“If she wants to,” I said. “But I think that the most important thing is that she see her sister right away.”

The bus reached my stop, and I got off.

Quite a bit later, I thought of what Jewish tradition has to say about vows and their risks. I thought about Jephthah and his daughter, and how, according to the biblical commentaries, Jephthah could have had his vow annulled easily by going to the high priest. But Jephthah, a victorious general, felt that the high priest should come to him, and the high priest thought that he should not have to humble himself by going to see Jephthah, a skilled fighter but a man of no learning. And so, because each man cared more about his own status than about saving the life of an innocent young woman, that life was lost, and both men suffered terrible punishment afterwards.

But like I said, that was later. What occupied my thoughts at the time was something much more immediate, much closer to home. Those who know me well may know what it was—and I ask that it not be mentioned in the comments because it is a private matter, something that I do not blog about.

I have only this to say:

If someone reading this post is thinking about severing all connection with a family member, I am telling you with all my heart: don’t. It is a bad idea, a terrible and tragic mistake, an act that will cause enormous suffering to you and all your family for years and perhaps for generations.

I am not talking here about abusive situations, in which sometimes the only solution may be to cut off contact with the abuser for a time and, in extreme cases, perhaps even permanently. I am talking about situations in which the reason for cutting off contact may seem compelling at the time but is actually absurd: a real or imagined slight, a disagreement, a quarrel. That sort of thing.

Such reasons, in my opinion, are complete and utter BS. They’re not worth such suffering.

Believe me. I know. I have no intention of talking about it here, but I know.

If you’re thinking about doing it, think again. And again. And again... until you think better of it.

And then, thank God that you came to your senses before it was too late.

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