In the “real” world, events are swirling about us, frightening us and confusing us. Hurricanes, wars, missiles — what is happening, and why, and how do we stop it, or gain a measure of protection from it?

This column is not the venue to discuss these matters. The good people of Beis Tefillah Yonah Avraham who attend and listen to (not the same thing) my talks and shiurim hear and will be hearing from me in these days of insecurity and instability. Yet, in a column devoted ostensibly to the Torah reading of the week (that actually is what it is supposed to be about; and it is — at least, sometimes…) one still has to look carefully and talk about something that will “speak” to people. And this is certainly what is on everyone’s mind! So this column will be devoted to a halachah derived from the reading of the week; and maybe, just maybe, some people will be inspired to take advantage of this halachah and put it to good use.

Traditionally, and al pi din, a person is supposed to shy away from making nedarim — vows that would technically obligate someone to do, or to refrain from doing, something that would otherwise be optional, e.g. I will not eat meat except at a seudas mitzvah; I will learn 15 more minutes a day; I will talk to my lonely neighbor at least twice a week; I will not sit over there in the lazy hours of the afternoon, for lashon hara quickly becomes the norm there. These are all wonderful things, yet Chazal warn us to be very judicious about adding obligations beyond what the Torah has obligated us to do; and if we do want to specify exactly what we plan to do, we should say bli neder.

The major exception to this rule is that a person may (or perhaps should, as we shall see) make a vow to take on something “extra” as an obligation  in a time of trouble, of tzarah! In our sedra, Yaakov Avinu, faced with the tzarah of his impending exile, with Esav seeking his life, vowed to build a matzeivah upon his safe return, and to give a certain amount of his possessions to HaShem. He seemingly conditioned all this on his safe return! (Bereishis 28:20-22) The Medrash derives from this that “This is meant to teach future generations that they, too, should make vows in times of travail.” This is stated also by Rishonim (Maseches Chullin 2b). It’s also derived from Chanah, when she vowed that if HaShem would grant her a child, she’d give over the child to Eli Hakohen to serve in the Bais HaShem his entire life (which indeed occurs, as the child born to her was Shmuel Hanavi!).

There are many points here. First, as mentioned, although we try mightily to refrain from nedarim, in times of trouble they are encouraged! Second, many Rishonim are of the opinion that it is a mitzvah, perhaps even an obligation, to make nedarim in such times. Another point is that making such a vow (even before its actual fulfillment) is itself considered meritorious, and would very possibly provide the tipping of the scale for the needed yeshuah immediately. And we are being taught that it is not considered inappropriate to make “deals” with Hashem!

Sefer Chassidim writes: Someone with a problem should not quickly jump to make a neder, unthinkingly, that he’ll later regret. Rather, he should go to a talmid chacham and discuss the matter, to figure out where he or she needs strengthening in his or her spiritual life, and what he or she would be capable of sticking to. Once a decision is reached, it’s a mitzvah to make such a vow. The vow should not be seen as a magic wand, though; if a person has an illness in his stomach, that doesn’t mean he should vow to stop eating that part of the animal’s meat! Rather, he should think about what part of his life needs chizuk. And if he has an inkling of a midah-kneged-midah angle, so much the better, and he should focus on that.

Many modern-day poskim (perhaps recognizing our frailties) suggest strongly even in such cases to always say bli neder! (Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l and ybl”cht Rav Chaim Kanievsky) It seems to me logical that if one says bli neder, the immediate merit would not be obtained in such a case. But there are those who recommend sticking to the neder formula, after an honest assessment of one’s capabilities.

A reflection of the seriousness of these vows is the fact that one may not perform hataras nedarim on such a neder, for fear that the tzarah might return, unless there is an extremely pressing need. Some propose an interesting idea: if the form of the neder was unconditional, meaning, I have this problem, L-rd, and I vow to give 5,000 shekel to tzedakah as a merit for a yeshuah, with no conditions, and the merit kicks in immediately and the problem is resolved, the neder can be subjected to hataras nedarim. But ifthe neder was originally made as a conditional one, such as the prototypical one that Yaakov made, in which the obligation to fulfill it is conditional upon the yeshuah, then one may not be matir.

There is an entire siman in Shulchan Aruch (siman 569 in Orach Chaim) dedicated to the idea of a neder in times of trouble. It can actually be done in one of two ways: unconditionally (whether or not there is a yeshuah) and conditional upon the yeshuah occurring. One imagines that the conditional one smacks of a shallowness, or even hypocrisy. But the truth is that the sources from where the idea is derived deal with the conditional kind! The person is saying, this is an “extra” effort in my avodas HaShem (obviously if it would be part of his basic obligation, no neder would be necessary). I can adopt it, and will, if HaShem goes that “extra” mile of rachamim and saves me — or us — despite the unworthiness which brought about the tzarah in the first place!

Is it more praiseworthy if one makes an unconditional one? Logically, I imagine, one would think so. Yet I find no mention or hint of that in the poskim. What do you think, dear readers?

So the next time you hear a siren, instead of just cowering in fear, you now have a weapon to fight back. Well, what are you people waiting for?