Imagine being in a meeting where everyone is asked to set “reach” goals for the next season. How about those self-help gurus who invite you to visualize your ultimate success? Perhaps there’s a social media post where you’re invited to dream, with reels of beautiful drivers in fancy cars, enormous luxury estates and vacations in exotic locales.
I was once part of an online writing group that emphasized setting goals. This included how many words you’d write a day, where you’d sell your work and how much you would earn. They repeated a refrain: “Writing is a positive addiction.” I retained a healthy cynicism about it all, but the thing I actually fell for was an exercise where you drew the cover of the book you were creating.
I drew the cover of the novel manuscript I was writing. Now, I’m happy to say that, since then, I’ve published books (all non-fiction) and articles with reputable publishers. I once won a fiction short story contest. I’m an actual writer and get paid for my work. I’m proud of this achievement! It’s also a real milestone for many who start out as grade school scribblers.
But, despite many attempts, I never sold that novel manuscript. Those who read it said it was good – but it remains unpublished. That book cover I posted above my desk for motivation makes me feel embarrassed. Who did I think I was? It’s hard for me to let go of my goals and cut myself a break. I held myself accountable.
This feeling of shame grew when I had a family because, as anyone with kids knows, it’s hard to make solid promises when dependents are in the picture. Even with family, spousal and childcare support, things can happen. The pandemic reminded us all that we have much less control over our lives than we thought. Sick kids happen. My children’s needs will always come before my work. There are no guarantees that you’ll always meet that deadline or reach the goals you set.
All this came to mind as I studied the Babylonian Talmud tractate Nedarim (Vows) and got to daf (page) 9. Nedarim is all about how to understand a vow, which, in Judaism, is taken very seriously. The rabbis explore definitions of how a vow works. Even though I’d never been taught these texts directly before, I have always hesitated to promise things that perhaps I can’t deliver. Just as we should not “swear” to things, we shouldn’t even promise anything if we think something might come up.
In Nedarim 9b, there’s a question about making a vow when it comes to bringing an offering. This itself could be strange, as the rabbis in the Gemara are reflecting on a time they never experienced. Very few of these rabbis were alive before the destruction of the Temple. They’re still concerned with the protocol of bringing an offering there, just in case the Temple is rebuilt. The real lesson is in how it’s theoretically done, even if no one’s ever making a physical offering again.
A person shouldn’t make a vow to bring an offering, the Gemara says, because “perhaps he will encounter a stumbling block” that would violate the prohibition against delaying. That delay would interfere with fulfilling the vow. Further, it’s a bad idea to designate a specific animal for the offering in advance because, again, something might happen to it. For instance, say it is a sheep, but it’s shorn by someone by accident. Perhaps someone works with a consecrated animal in some way when he shouldn’t. This is a misuse of a consecrated animal, and it’s prohibited. The animal can no longer be used as an offering.
Then, a story is told about Hillel the Elder. No one ever misused his offering. Why? He would bring it to the Temple courtyard unconsecrated. Only after he arrived, would he consecrate it. Then he’d place his hand on its head and slaughter it. There was no opportunity for misuse.
Upon reading this, I better understood my hesitancy in terms of big goals. The generations of parents who said to their children “We’ll see” rather than promising things? This made good sense. The rabbis understood the concern that sometimes even sure things fall through.
Some traditionally religious Jews say “bli neder,” or “without a vow,” when committing to something. It means – I’ll try to the best of my abilities, but I’m not making a serious vow. I’ve never used this, but it has such power. Yes, we all want to reach milestones and accomplish huge things. Absolutely! However, it can be heartbreaking when we don’t quite get there, even if we have valid reasons for why we didn’t.
It can be anti-climactic to be like Hillel the Elder. After all, there was no announcement, anticipation or build up for him around his vows. It was very low key.
I remembered something similar that happened long ago, when I was an undergraduate. Friends doing science degrees would plan big parties after their last exams, bar-hopping and celebrating when the semester ended. I often had only one or two exams. Mostly, I wrote many final papers in my dorm room. With stacks of books everywhere, I’d write alone at my computer each morning. Then, I’d print the paper, walk across campus and put it in a professor’s mailbox. That was it. When the last paper was finished, boom, end of my semester. No big announcement or party followed. I packed up by myself and traveled home.
Sometimes Jewish texts can be hard to connect to, because the issues seem old, irrelevant or don’t include me as a woman. This time, though, I was right there with the rabbis’ stumbling blocks and the low-key anti-climax of Hillel the Elder. I wish that everyone could hit those big reach goals and fulfil their aspirations – but perhaps we might not voice them as promises ahead of time. According to the rabbis, that quieter approach is entirely OK, too.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.