The Woman's Vow
Matot-Masay (Numbers 30-36 )
Matot begins with the topic of vows. We learn the laws of a woman who makes a vow and either her father (if unmarried) or her husband annul it.
Rashi focuses on intentions versus actions.
"But if her father disallowed her on the day of his hearing, all her vows or prohibitions which she forbade on herself shall not stand; and Hashem will forgive her, for her father had disallowed her."
And Hashem will forgive her - RASHI: To what case is the Scripture referring? To a woman who took the "Nazirite" vow. Her husband (some change this to "her father" because these verses refer to a father's nullifying his daughter's vow, not a husband nullifying his wife's vow. In our analysis we will refer to the father) heard and nullified it, but she was unaware of this. She then violated her vow by drinking wine and defiling herself by contact with a corpse. She is in need of forgiveness even though it was nullified. Now if those who[se vows] have been nullified require forgiveness, certainly those who[se vows] have not been nullified.
What would you ask about this comment?
A Question: Rashi feels the need to explain the particular circumstances to which these words are referring. Why? What is not clear?
Hint: Rashi's statement, ",She is in need of forgiveness even though it was nullified," implies a question.
WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?
An Answer: Our verse speaks of a situation where a young woman makes a vow but her father immediately nullifies it. Then it says that the woman is forgiven. "Forgiven for what?" we would ask. If her father nullified her vow, even if she acts contrary to the vow, she has not "violated" anything, since the vow was legitimately annulled. In such a case, what need is there for God's forgiveness?
This is the question that Rashi is dealing with. How does his explanation help matters?
An Answer: Granted the woman's father nullified her vow, but she was not aware of that. She thought her vow was still valid. So we have a situation where she thought that the vow was valid, but nevertheless she went ahead and violated it by drinking wine. This is an unusual case, where a person intended to commit a sinful act, yet, in fact, did not. Rashi tells us that even though formally and legally she has not sinned, her sinful intention is nevertheless in need of Divine forgiveness.
INTENTIONS VS. ACTIONS
This is an important message. Judaism has always placed its emphasis on man's actions more than on his intentions or beliefs. Granted that the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) makes a point of the importance of intentions by saying, "God desires the heart," meaning that He wants our right intentions. Nevertheless, we know, for example, that giving charity, even for selfish motives, is better than not giving. In such a case, intentions are secondary to actions. The Israelites' declaration at Mt. Sinai "We will do and we will hear (i.e. understand)" (Exodus 24:7), which gave precedence to action over intention – is a central credo of the religious Jew. Nevertheless, intentions are not irrelevant. They are the spurs to action. "The heart desires and body implements" for right or for wrong. A person who eats a piece of kosher meat though he thinks it is not kosher, has not transgressed a law for which he can be punished. Yet Rashi's comment teaches us that God does hold him accountable. He must ask forgiveness for his sinful intention.
RASHI'S KAL V'CHOMER
Rashi used a kal v'chomer, a logical induction: If one need ask forgiveness for a permissible act, but for which one had a sinful intention, ( the woman who "violated" a vow that had already been annulled) then we can logically assume that he must certainly ask forgiveness for actually committing a sinful act.
A Question: Is this not all too obvious? Doing a transgression is obviously worse than not doing one! Why the need for Rashi to even mention it. Anyone could have made the same deduction.
Rashi's source is the Talmud (Tractate Kiddushin 81b) where it says:
"When Rabbi Akiva would read this verse he would cry and say: 'If a person intended to take a piece of pork and by mistake took a piece of [kosher] veal, he is in need of atonement and forgiveness, how much more so, the person who intended to take a piece of pork and in actuality did take a piece of pork!' "
It is clear that Rabbi Akiva's reaction was an emotional one (he cried), not merely a logically deduced one. He was shaken by the awesome responsibility of keeping God's commandments and the dire consequences for the one who transgresses them, even in mind only. His was a mussar reflection. So, asking why such a deduction is necessary, since it is logical, misses the point. The point was not a deduction, analytically arrived at, but an awesome existential awareness. This also may be Rashi's intention.