One of the topics this week’s two parshot, Mattos and Masei, deals with is the neder, or vow. A neder can occur if someone says they will no longer enjoy something that the Torah permits them to enjoy, for example, “Apples are forbidden to me for a week.” A neder can also occur if someone obligates themselves to bring an optional offering or to fulfill an optional commandment, for example to give money to a charity.
The neder is unique in religious experience, because usually only a god of some religion can change the religious status of a thing. Declaring a neder allows a person to change the religious status of something, from permitted to forbidden or from optional to required. Why would a person prohibit himself from enjoying something? Like fasting, the prohibition helps us sort out what is important and necessary from what is enjoyable but not necessary. This turns our thoughts inward to discover what is important in life.
The parasha Mattos begins with the basic law of the neder, “If a man takes a vow to God or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do.” (Numbers 30:3) God permits us to make a neder but it will be useless if we do not follow all the rules, so God commands us to complete what we say we will do.
I once saw a video where both the Chief Scout Executive and the national chief of the Order of the Arrow were asked the same question in separate interviews: “What is the most important point of the Scout Law?” Both of them immediately answered, “Trustworthy.”
They both realized that doing what you say you will do is the basis of all other human interaction. If people cannot trust you to do what you say you will, how can they believe anything about you? Just as the neder permits you to change the religious status of something, so your word to other people permits you to create a relationship. Both the neder and the relationship with the other person are built on being trustworthy.