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Returning to What's True Part VI – Vows, Garments for the Soul

In the West, we are used to starting a new calendar year with some resolutions – commitments we take upon ourselves. Those usually revolve around self-improvement: improvement of one’s body (take out a gym membership, start a diet, commit to regular walks), or one’s behavior (be kinder, more compassionate, volunteer or give more). New Year – new me.

Judaism and Buddhism also offer spiritual practices centered on similar but deeper commitments – vows, garments for the soul, as Jewish sages called them. Their understanding of vows is somewhat different, but not necessarily at odds with each other.

“One who takes a vow in order to strengthen his good resolves and improve his way of life is worthy of a praise,” states Shulkhan Arukh, the basic code of the Jewish law.

Torah scribe, Kahal Tzion Synagogue, Old City of Jerusalem © Lane Igoudin, 2019

A vow in the Buddhist tradition means choosing to direct your life to act in harmony with the earth and with all living beings. Japanese Zen master Kosho Uchiyama illustrates this concept with the following metaphor: “We act with a spirit of looking after everything as our own life. Like mother caring for her child, we aim to function unconditionally and tirelessly, and to do so without expecting any reward.”

By taking on these bodhisattva vows, a Zen practitioner commits to ending or easing the suffering of all beings. It sounds quite lofty, but it really comes down to helping people do their best, serving them, shifting the focus from one’s own needs to the needs of others, the needs of nature, the needs of the planet. Taking these vows and living according to them can set an ordinary person on the path of enlightenment.

Vows vs. Goals

In both traditions, a personal vow is not the same as a personal goal. Goals are intended results, while vows are ways of acting or behaving that can lead to these results. A vow ensures that we complete the journey to the goal, while directing how we think, behave, and speak during each step.

Vows reflect our deepest intentions. One may, for example, vow to listen deeply, or to help others heal, or to always be guided by love and compassion, rather than fear, or to avoid indulging in poisons of any kind.

Goals, on the other hand, should be more specific, as well as “modest, doable, and within reach,” advise contemporary writers Sivan Rahav Meir and Yedidya Meir. They cite a story by a rabbinical student who presented a particular commitment to his rabbinical advisor, and the advisor, in turn, asked him to “cut that commitment in half so that [he] will be sure to fulfill it.”

Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira (The Piaseczno Rebbe) offers an example of such difference between goals and vows. Every year, set for yourself a specific goal, he suggests. “If your name is Reuven, for example, imagine what kind of Reuven you will be next year, what your achievements, your service and your middot (character traits) will be like one year from now.” But throughout the year, assess your actions and behavior against that imaginary self. “Is your daily service and acts of self-improvement enough to reach the level of next year’s Reuven?” he asks. In other words, keep an eye on your goal, but stay present with your vow.