Vows. I know we’re still a couple of months away from Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when we talk a lot about the vows and promises we make, but this week’s parasha Matot brings it up right away: “If a man makes a vow to Adonai or take an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge…” (Num 30:3). Fair enough. Reading on, “If a woman makes a vow to Adonai, or assumes an obligation while still in her father’s household by reason of her youth…” and the father can nullify the vow if he finds out and chooses to do so. Same sort of thing if she’s married; the husband can choose to nullify her vow. Granted, if the woman is a widow or divorcee, she’s on her own – literally. Her vows stand.
“If a woman makes a vow…” Enter the commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra, a Spanish scholar/rabbi who lived in the late 11th/early 12th centuries. He lived most of his life in Muslim Spain, but spent the latter years wandering through Christian Italy, France and England. He was a pretty sharp-eyed reader, and grammar was his particular passion. He was quite the linguist, and often brought in words from other languages to support his commentary on the meaning of the Hebrew words.
Ibn Ezra asks a question we all do. He says, “The text speaks here of ‘a woman’ and elsewhere, a ‘man’, but nowhere does it tell us when a boy becomes a man or a girl becomes a woman. Clearly there are some things for which we need tradition.” (my emphasis)
We’re talking about taking responsibility for your vows here, taking responsibility for the words that come out of your mouth. Our tradition says the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah is when a child becomes an adult, but anyone who has had a 13 year old child might have an opinion about that.
So when do we become responsible for the promises we make and the actions we take? Some laws state age 16 for some things, and 18 for others. Some laws establish age 21 for still other privileges and obligations. In practical terms, some identify that leap into adulthood when the first lease is signed. Maybe it’s after grad school. Maybe it’s marriage. Maybe kids. Maybe later. Maybe never?
It’s called “delaying the path to adulthood” or in one blog I read, “adultescence” . Those markers that screamed “adult” in generations past, marriage, kids, homeownership, are occurring later and later in young people’s lives. Is it because of the economy? I heard a report on the radio yesterday that some potential dating partners walk away from someone they’ve met if their student debt load is too high, even if they really like each other. Are people delaying children because they’re hesitant to begin supporting another person while they’re still getting themselves on an even financial keel, plus possibly helping aging parents? Or, is this the result of a generation of “helicopter-parents”, the ones who hovered and did everything for their kids to ensure “their” successes, starting with toddlerhood and going to resume-writing for the college apps? Have those children lost the ability to become independent, intent on being under the parents’ wings for as long as possible. Even our government has gotten into the issue; we parents can keep our kids on our insurance (if we’re lucky enough to have it) until they’re 26, and most of us are glad about that. Why, when I was 26…..when my mom was 26…..
Ibn Ezra says we need tradition to clarify these transition ages and moments. But the tradition isn’t working anymore on that level; as in so many other situations in Jewish life, and life in the secular world, tradition needs to be reviewed, re-pondered and re-written. Clearly, there are some things we need tradition for, but not to the extent that we don’t take occasionally new looks at old definitions, and seek to reconcile current reality with past circumstances. Ibn Ezra could sense the ambivalence in the text. We can sense it in our lives.