Words have power. Reputations can be created or destroyed by a 144 character tweet. Words connecting us to God had power for our biblical ancestors, as reflected in the third commandment to not swear falsely by Y-H-V-H's name. And by Balaam's inability to undo his unintentional blessing of the Israelites - "how goodly are your tents". Yet, we read in this week's parshiyot that men's words have more staying power than women's. The vows that men make to God are absolute. The vows that women make depend on the male in her life permitting the vow to stand as long as she has a male in her life. There are reasons for this: one is that the vow constrains her future behavior; a second is that she was not an independent person; and the third is to protect her from the guilt of not fulfilling her vow.
Women's independent status then was due to her responsibilities to her husband and household, the source of her economic security. In fact, a widow was able to make a vow and have it stand. The Rabbis of the Talmud had a problem with vows in general and there is an 11 chapter tractate, Nedarim (Vows) in Nashim (Women), an order of the Mishnah, addressing this. The rabbis saw most vows as impulsive and extreme and therefore in conflict with their general approach of "moderate and elevate".
What should we think about the holding power of vows today? It was thinking about this that gave me new insight into the Kol Nidre (All Vows) prayer. Each year on Erev Yom Kippur we ask God to release us from all vows made from now until the next Yom Kippur. Historically, there were Jews who had no more independence to make or fulfill vows than did the women in ancient Israel. Some pretended to convert away from Judaism in order to survive knowing that the vow would not be fulfilled. Rather than live with the guilt (or sin) of this, the Yom Kippur prayer allows them to keep the power of words, of vows to God, intact and released the proclaimer of guilt.
None of us have real control of our future, therefore, vows controlling our future behavior may not be able to be fulfilled. Kol Nidre may subtly warn us to not make vows we can't keep while it asks God to release up from vows that we will be unable to keep. Let's keep playing Words with Friends, and also spend time focusing on words with God.