As the sun sank lower in the sky, shining in my eyes as I sipped my chai tea, I knew I had only a few more minutes with my grandmother before I had to catch my train back home. No matter how many times or how often I visit, it never seems to be enough to hear all her stories. This afternoon, my grandmother Malka cradled her tea and reminisced about her own grandmother, Leah.
We were approaching the month of Elul. Malka gazed at the amber sky and remembered how Safta Leah took her to visit the graves of her ancestors in Tzfat. Each year, in the weeks before Rosh Hashanah, grandmother and granddaughter cleaned the headstones, pulled weeds, and prayed at the tombs of those long gone.
Safta Leah had vowed to take care of the graves, as was her family tradition.
That cemetery in Tzfat, the final resting place of so many of our ancestors, was destroyed by Jordanian soldiers during the War of Independence in 1948. The brutes bulldozed the Jewish graves, broke the sacred headstones, and used four generations of our family’s grave markers as toilet seats in battlefield latrines.
My grandmother told me all this with angry tears sparking the corners of her eyes. “Today, there is nothing left of those graves,” she sighed, and put her teacup down with a finality that broke the moment. It was time to go to the train station.
It’s been many years since my grandmother told me of her grandmother’s promise. I made my vow on the 11th of last October, just after dawn. An email had popped into my inbox from a dear friend of mine, announcing the date of her upcoming marriage on August 7th, 2018 — in Israel.
I wanted nothing more than to RSVP to be at that wedding. But the catch was that I lived in Los Angeles — on the other side of the planet. I felt in my kishkes that I had to, somehow, make it to the wedding, but I also felt like it was completely out of my control. I was unemployed, had meagre savings, and had been searching for work for no less than a year.
So I turned to the One Upstairs. I spoke the following vow out loud,
“G!d – I’ll make you a deal: I will have Emunah (faith) that somehow You are going to get me to Israel to dance at this wedding. In return, You give me the Parnassah (income) in time to make it happen.”
In a way, it was ludicrous to believe I would attend. I knew that it was unlikely I would be able to afford a round trip to Israel, even if I landed a job soon. But on the other hand, it was ten months away – that’s plenty of time for G!d to hold up one end of the bargain.
I thought of my vow frequently since that bright morning in October. It lingered in the back of my mind with every potential employment opportunity, during every interview, and upon receiving countless rejections. As the months passed, I said to myself, “G!d’s still got time. We have an understanding.”
Carrying the Weight of Words
This week’s sedra (Torah portion), Re’eh, is often discussed for it’s unparalleled opening line of choosing between blessing and curse. But if you delve a bit further into the sedra, you’ll discover a strong theme of making and keeping promises:
רַק קָדָשֶׁיךָ אֲשֶׁר-יִהְיוּ לְךָ וּנְדָרֶיךָ תִּשָּׂא וּבָאתָ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-יִבְחַר יְהוָה
Only the holy things that you will have and your vow offerings; you shall take, and you shall come to the place that Hashem will choose. (Deut. 12:26)
This verse is strange when you think about it. It makes sense to command the Israelites to carry physical offerings to sacrifice to G!d, but what does it mean to carry a vow offering from place to place?
The Masorah points out that the word ונדריך, “your vow offerings”, appears only twice in the TaNaKh (Hebrew Bible): once here in Deut. 12:26, and once in Job 22:27 in the phrase ונריך תשלם, meaning “and you should pay your vows”.
The Baal HaTurim writes the following on this concept of carrying and paying vows:
“Thus, you should pay your vows. And how does this apply? Your vow offerings you shall carry, i.e., you shall bear the responsibility for them until you bring them, as you have vowed.”
In other words, after making a vow, you carry the weight of that responsibility forth until you “pay it”; until you fulfill your promise. In this vein, on the subject of vows, the Talmud Megillah 8a states that once a person has said, “I am obligated”, it is as if one has accepted the burden of responsibility on one’s own shoulders.
In this way, the Torah teaches us to speak carefully. Once you take on a responsibility, you gotta carry that weight ’til you fulfill your vow at the proper place and proper time.
If you think breaking or fulfilling a vow only affects the one who promises, you might be surprised to learn that it also affects the generations who come after:
שְׁמֹר וְשָׁמַעְתָּ, אֵת כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי, מְצַוֶּךָּ: לְמַעַן יִיטַב לְךָ וּלְבָנֶיךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ, עַד-עוֹלָם–כִּי תַעֲשֶׂה הַטּוֹב וְהַיָּשָׁר, בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
Observe and hear all these words which I command thee, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee for ever, when thou doest that which is good and right in the eyes of the LORD thy God. (Deut. 12:28)
The decisions we make, the actions we take, the vows we break or fill, all these have an impact on our children and children’s children.
How might we behave differently if we weighed our responsibilities and decisions on how each choice would affect our child, grandchild, or even great grandchild?
The Striding Chet
An unusual letter Chet appears on the second half of the passuk (verse) Deut. 12:18
וְשָׂמַחְתָּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכֹל, מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ
…And you shall rejoice before G!d in all that you send forth your hand [to accomplish].
This unusual Chet stands out on the word mishlah, “send forth” within the phrase bekhol mishlah yadkha, “in all you send forth your hand”.
The Masorah calls this letter Chet akum, which at first blush translates to ‘twisted’ or ‘distorted’. I’ve even heard some call this letter the “Chet with the broken leg”.
I translate עקום differently: Angled. The striding leg of the Chet is angled forth in a diagonal as compared with a regular Chet, whose legs stand firmly vertical. Far from having a broken leg, her leg is stretched forth in strength because she’s moving forward. Look at her, she’s practically walking off the page!
The Chet Akum is a pictogram of a striding person – one who steps forth into the future. Here is one letter who reaches beyond herself. She is sent forth, mishlah, and rejoices before G!d, even while carrying the weight of vows and promises from place to place.
The wedding was now only a few weeks away.
Through a series of miraculous events, an incredible job opportunity fell into my lap and quicker than you can say Shma Yisrael, I was employed full time, with full benefits, at a Jewish museum in my area of expertise.
Friday morning, August 3rd, I walked into my new office and got started on my emails, and I decided it was impossible to attend the wedding. After all, I was learning the ropes of this new job, and I had to give it my all. My boss would surely never allow me to take time off for such a trip.
At 11:00am, I was struck by a thought so powerfully that I nearly fell off my chair: Why was I saying No to myself? Why not at least ask? Hadn’t Hashem held up the bargain? A little late, yes, but it was time for me to hold up my end.
At 12:15pm, I walked into the office of my boss and asked her permission to attend an out of town wedding.
“Where is the wedding?”
“How long will you be gone?”
She considered me a moment.
I gaped at her.
In awe, I walked through the rest of the day as if in a dream. I boarded the airplane to Israel on Sunday morning, August 5th.
I attended the wedding on August 7th with an overwhelming feeling of being accompanied by the Shechinah – the feminine divine presence.
The most moving part of the ceremony for me was the vows between the bride & groom and the reading of the names of their grandparents who were not physically present to celebrate the wedding of their grandchildren. If I cried during the vows, I wept during the honoring of the previous generation under the canopy.
That night, I danced until I felt that my heart would give out if I continued. Life was beautiful.
Generation to Generation
The morning after the wedding, I felt a strong pull to visit the graves of my family who were interred in a cemetery in Givatayim. Being in Israel for only a week, I felt the pressure of time. I wanted to do so many things, but for some reason, my heart told me that visiting the Beit Kvarot was non-negotiable.
I arrived in the afternoon, with many large water bottles, wash cloths, and brushes. I felt my way to where I knew the grave of Safta Leah to be – she rests in the shade of a particular cypress tree whom I met last time I was there with my mother.
I found Safta Leah towards the end of a row composed of several of her ten children and their spouses. I removed the shoes from off my feet and set to work sweeping the fallen leaves, bird droppings, and caked earth off the headstones. The fragrance of pine and cypress soothed me as I scrubbed away. Sweat on my brow mingled with the dust in the air, and I tasted salt and grit between my teeth. I soon became covered with dust as I cleaned each grave. It took a long time.
I poured pure water over the headstones once they were clean. Wet in the afternoon heat, the white marble gleamed. I placed red stones on each grave, one for each of my relatives. I placed a white stone on the grave of Safta Leah. Then, I stood barefoot on the earth and offered a prayer.
Suddenly, I received an unexpected call: It was my mother on the phone, and conferenced in was my grandmother Malka. I told them where I stood and what I had just done. We all kvelled. Then I said the kaddish, the first time in my life I had ever done so. My matriarchs responded Amen.
Be True to Your Word
In ancient Israel, a person was only as good as their word. It was a time before most people had the education or means to read and write, well before the printing press made books and contracts ubiquitous.
If a person said they would do something, there was a huge value placed on following through. Today, it has shifted into a different ethic: we no longer trust each other’s word. We have to have written contracts before we would even think of renting an apartment or entering into a business agreement.
G!d created the universe with words. If G!d spoke the world into being, and continues creating it every moment with the Hebrew letters, then our words, too, have incredible power.
When a vow is spoken, a burden of responsibility is created, and it is up to the one making the promise to carry it through to completion, at the place and time when G!d chooses.
We are entering the month of Elul, in which we prepare ourselves for the holiest time of the entire year. As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur over the next four weeks, pay attention to your words. Choose them carefully. Make only promises that you intend to keep.
And if you stride forth like the courageous Chet in holiness and in joy at the vows you carry, may it go well with thee, and with thy children after thee for ever, for thou doest that which is good and right in the eyes of the Ribono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe.
Chodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.
My heartfelt gratitude to Malka for teaching me about where I come from, and gifting me with the burden of responsibility in keeping our family tradition alive, from generation to generation.
I thank my Aba & Aema for giving me the precious gift of life and for my Torah education, and for being such strong links in our Shalshelet HaDorot.
I stride forth with perpetual, deep gratitude to Rabbi Abraham Lieberman for his teachings, and particularly for his unwavering support and confidence in his pupil.
Thank you to RSM for introducing me to the incredible Yeminite publication, “Torah Q’duma” (תורה קדומה). I thank him for giving me specific instructions on how to purchase it in the store called “Nosach Teiman” in Bnei Brak. I thank Sholom Simon for introducing me to RSM in the first place, otherwise I would not have known about this wonderful resource at such a critical point in my Masoretic research.
Many thanks to Benyamin Moshe for his wisdom in helping me navigate the writing of this piece.
1. “Torah Q’duma” (תורה קדומה), published by Sha’ul ben Shalom Hudayfi, Beit Dagan, 2005, p. 277.
2. “Baal HaTurim Chumash”, ed. Avie Gold, 2007, pp. 1954-2003.
3. Torah Text and translation: https://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0512.htm