Possibly one of the worst and most common experiences for a kid is a broken promise. Maybe for anyone. Who remembers a parent breaking a promise to them? Who has had the painful task of breaking a promise to a kid? As we are older, we may understand — things change. Things don’t work out the way we planned, and that’s sometimes OK. Kids don’t usually have the maturity for that. Sometimes we find the promise was too unrealistic, or, in the case of a promised consequence — too intense.
We have a story in our tradition, showing the damage of a rash vow, and that also serves as an eerie mirror-image to the Binding of Yitzhak, which we read on Rosh Hashanah. That is, the almost-sacrifice of Isaac at the hands of Avraham, seemingly at God’s behest. This story is also one of the origin stories of the shofar; for a ram was sacrificed in Isaac’s place; thus where we get that we should use a ram’s horn to blow and to remember the faithfulness of Avraham.
Here is the story about a rash vow. In the book of Judges, the Israelites are in yet another skirmish a local tribe. Enter Yiftach, who will be the newest Judge, the newest chieftain to lead the Israelites to victory. Yiftach, from the area and half-tribe of Gilead, does not have Kol Nidre the best relationship with his family. While his father is Gil’ad, he is the son of an unnamed sex worker. As soon as their father passes, his brothers cut him out of the inheritance and kick him out of the house. Yiftach roams the land, joining a group of raiders.
One day, the elders of his tribe finds him and urges him to lead them against the Ammonites. They half-heartedly apologize for the way they treated him, and beg him for their help. Yiftach accepts. And then, the text reads that the “spirit of G!d” comes upon Yiftach, and he leads his army over to the Ammonites. Before the battle, he makes a conditional vow to G!d and says, “G!d, if you let me win this battle, I promise to sacrifice to You as a burnt offering the first thing that comes out of my house when I come home.” No doubt he imagined it would be a chicken or a goat.
Yiftach easily wins the battle, and the text specifically notes that G!d delivers the Ammonites into his hands.
And when he returns home, who should step out of his house to greet him, singing and playing the timbrel, then his own daughter! Kol Nidre Yiftach falls to his knees in despair and tears his clothes. He cannot take back a vow to G!d. “You have brought me low! You have become my troubler!” He says to his daughter.
Bat Yiftach does not also fall in despair. She doesn’t release rage on her father. She encourages him to go through with his vow, with one request from her — to be alone for two months, so she can go with her female companions to the hills, and “bewail her maidenhood.” He relents, and so she does. And he sacrifices her to G!d. It became a ritual, the book of Judges says, for young women of Israel to go every year to chant dirges for Bat Yiftach, the daughter of Yiftach.
We have Yiftach, possibly yearning for some sort of acceptance in his life, desperate for family approval, making this ill-informed vow to G!d that he cannot retract. The thought of retracting the vow to G!d, of not going through with this promise, does not seem to be an option for either Yiftach or his daughter. We have the daughter, perhaps victim to her father’s trauma, yet responding with a strange wisdom beyond her years; desiring time to mourn her life; to mourn the love she will never Kol Nidre have; to accept her fate. It is a warped version of Avraham and Yitzhak; the father despairing, the child accepting; a foolish vow made by a father, instead of a test from G!d. The promise followed through, with no reaction one way or the other from G!d.
In the prayer of Kol Nidre, we annul any vows we made. We cancel them. There seems to be a negative attitude towards any vow — perhaps recognizing that we are human, and even if the vow may be reasonable, it is still a serious thing to do when one is likely to mess it up.
However, it’s said that many rabbis disapproved of this prayer. You can’t just cancel a vow you made. You have to take it seriously! But the people railed against getting rid of this prayer. Because the way the hazzan, the cantor sung it, was so utterly haunting and beautiful.
I invite you to consider the expectations you may need to reconsider. The promises you need to live up to. What you might need to work to accept in your life. What you may need to mourn.
Welcome to Yom Kippur. Welcome to the work. G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May you be sealed in the Book of Life.