He didn’t have to take on such an obligation, but once he did there is accountability. Bal t’acher. He is enjoined to fulfill his neder by a certain deadline. Generally, for korbanos there is no violation of bal t’acher until three regalim have passed (according to some Tannaim, only in a particular order, which can extend the time) – although there may be a bitul asei already from the first regel – and there is a heated discussion amongst the mefarshim if that timeline holds true for nezirus as well, or if by nezirus it is immediate (see Ran and Rosh on the end of yesterday’s daf, and Turei Even in Rosh Ha’Shana 4a); but what is clear is that some form of deadline there definitely is.
It’s an interesting thing. He really didn’t have to make this neder. In fact, the Torah generally frowns very much on making nedarim. He was under no pressure whatsoever to do it. He was as free and clear, as far as this is concerned, as can be. But once he accepted it, he is 100% obligated to follow through, and by a certain deadline to boot!
Although it is true that this halacha is strictly limited to nedarim (but one could be surprised to learn how many things may in fact fall under the rubric of a full-fledged neder, for example, making a pledge to tzedaka), it seems inescapable that there is a general, underlying implication about human responsibility. It is not something to be taken lightly.
No less implicit is the sense of chashivus that this demonstrates for our human input into the world. To a great extent, Torah is a code of clear, very-specific instructions. We are told what to do, when to do, how to do, etc. That there is plenty of room for individual identity and expression within this system is undeniable, but it is nevertheless within a framework of specific guidance and direction. Nedarim, on the other hand, is a pocket of primarily human contribution. You don’t have to do this. If you want to you can; and, generally, you get to stipulate the major terms and conditions.
One may have been inclined to think that such a platform could not exist in a G-d-given Torah; after all, what room could there be for a facet of human contribution within a system of rules and regulations given by the Being who embodies, as it were, total and absolute perfection? But that is the whole point, the Almighty is not interested in automatons who respond to the stimuli of Torah mandate as computers respond to the swipe of a key. Rachmana libah baei. He wants real people who are engaged in what they are doing; a dynamic relationship wherein we are major contributors, as it were. And the parsha of nedarim is the Torah platform that underscores this very point. It is the quintessential “It is all up to you; if you decide to or not, and precisely what. It’s a matter of your contribution, your personal initiative”.
In fact, from the parsha of nezirus – which is of course a subdivision of nedarim – we derive the principle of human contribution in perhaps the broadest sense.
The Mesilas Yesharim (perek 11), after quoting a Medrash that likens the ancillary prohibitions of arayos to those of a Nazir, writes as follows: “See how wondrous the words of this Medrash are – that it likened this prohibition to that of a Nazir – that although the primary prohibition of a Nazir is drinking wine, behold the Torah forbade him from everything that has relationship to wine. And this serves as a lesson that the Torah is teaching the Chachamim how they should erect fences for the Torah in the fulfillment of the custodianship that was given over into their hands to erect protective boundaries for the Torah. They are meant to learn from the Nazir to forbid, because of the primary prohibition, anything similar thereto. What emerges, then, is that the Torah did with this mitzvah of Nazir that which it gave over to the Chachamim to do with all the other mitzvos, in order to make known that this is the will of the Almighty.”
The whole concept of decrees, enactments, and minhagim that are established by the Chachamim is extremely novel within the framework of a G-d-given Torah. It is a massive role and charge of human contribution. So massive, in fact, that in many sections of halacha (if not most), it is the d’Rabbanan’s that occupy the overwhelming bulk of the substance of the laws. Talk about human contribution!
And that is ratzon Hashem.
So, yes, the Torah takes very seriously what we take on of our own initiative and proactive endeavor. Because the human contribution of the bris ha’Torah is a fundamental, crucial component to what it is all about. What we put in is of utmost importance and significance. That is why it is serious business. Full-fledged nedarim are the epitome thereof and carry the heaviest weight, but in a general sense as well, our part in the system is key.
An important footnote – or perhaps much more than a footnote – to this discussion, is an incisive statement Rabbi Paysach Krohn once quoted from his wife: “When you say yes to one thing, you are saying no to another.”
Human responsibility is real, and it is serious; that’s why we need to be careful about how we employ it. To not just haphazardly “throw it around”, irrespective of how nice we are trying to be. Respecting the significance of your input into the world into which Hashem put you, and more specifically within the system of Torah and mitzvos of the Jewish nation on both the communal and individual levels, means respecting every facet of what you do and ascribing appropriate significance thereto.
To revert to the nedarim paradigm for a moment, as mentioned, one is not supposed to be loose about making nedarim. Yes, human input and contribution is key – and that is one of the great, broad lessons we are meant to learn from it – but part of that recognition of supreme importance is understanding that already in the “strictly mandated” part of Torah there is so much there which is our contribution, and we need to therefore exercise caution before activating the most intense form of human contribution called a neder. And one reason, perhaps, is because it necessarily brings about a certain shift in balance. If you say yes to that neder, you are going to be saying no to something else; and that is often not the best thing for you to do.
The fundamental point, then, is that recognizing how truly important our role is in the lives that Hashem has given us should inspire us and afford us a sense of empowerment to exercise both great care in how we apportion our individual initiative and contribution, and a strong sense of responsibility to follow through with whatever commitments it is that we do undertake.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.