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Rabbi Kalmar's Sermon Parshat Mattos-Massei 25 Tammuz 5780

"Taking a Vow to Combat Selfishness"


The following appeared in my email this week – as part of some good news:

When he retired in 1995, Sherman Hirsch discovered something he could do with his newfound free time: donate his platelets. Since then, the 89-year-old Nebraska resident has donated his platelets more than 700 times, joking with Good Morning America that he is "definitely on a first-name basis" with the staff at his local Red Cross. While still working as a teacher, Hirsch regularly donated blood after school. It takes longer to donate platelets, about three hours, and Hirsch does this every other Monday. "I decided this is something I can do to help out other people and I've always been blessed with good health," he told GMA. "It's easy to do and it doesn't cost me anything." The Red Cross says that platelets, tiny cells in the blood that form clots and stop bleeding, are needed every 15 seconds in the United States to help people fighting cancer, traumatic injuries, and chronic diseases. [Good Morning America]


This week’s parshiot begin by dealing with the aspects of taking a neder – a vow.   The Talmud in Nedarim says that one can take a neder, a vow to fulfill a commandment.  The Gemara asks – how can one take a vow to do a mitzvah – when they are already commanded to do it?  What does a vow add to a commandment from God? 


The Talmud answers that the vow is there to encourage someone to do the mitzvah – lizaruzei bi’alma – just to give him encouragement. 


The Steipler, R. Yisrael Yaakov Kanievsky, in his Birkas Peretz, asks that that does not really answer the question.   God already commanded you to do it – so you added your own oath – why should that make any difference? 


He answers that the way that a person usually neglects to perform a mitzvah is not because they say “I want to sin. I plan on sinning.  I’m being bad”  Rather they have a justification.  We tell ourselves that really we have extenuating circumstances and don’t need to do this mitzvah.  My case is different we say to ourselves.  We say “Self. God would not want me to do the commandment in this situation.  He knows my story – and knows why my situation is different.”   We lie to ourselves, we fool ourselves, we convince ourselves.

The point of the vow, says the Steipler, is to sort of force our hand – we may have come up with a justification – but what can we do – we took an oath that we have to do it – so we have no choice.


Today we discourage people from taking vows.  But we are not exempt from mitzvos. And neither are we short on excuses and justifications for not doing what is right. 


Sometimes we just have to get ourselves in the habit of doing what is right.


During these last four months – we have rightly focused on the health of ourselves and of others by trying hard not to spread the COVID-19 virus.  But at the same time – during this time – we have focused very much on ourselves.   Which means that we may have tipped our focus onto our own selfish needs and forgotten about the needs of others. 


We need to make sure that we don’t get stuck in such a rut.


Sherman Hirsch found a way to give something amazing to others – and he just put it in the schedule – to give platelets – so that he has done it an amazing 700+ times over the last 25 years.  If we make something kavua – set – that we have to do – then it is like we are taking a vow – we put it on the schedule.  So you just have to do it.


So lets find ways to combat selfishness – to stop just thinking about our own pain or gain – and to find ways to put kindness, and giving and doing for others on our regular schedule.   What an amazing legacy we can leave.

Wed, July 6 2022 7 Tammuz 5782