In the opening verses of our Sidra we encounter the laws of making and annulling a vow. And whereas a person cannot release himself from his pledges, in certain cases, others can do it for him. In particular, a father can release his daughter (if she has not reached the age of maturity) or a husband his wife, from their vows. There is a further intermediate case, which is something of a combination of these two; a girl who is as yet only betrothed, can be released from a pledge by the combined veto of her father and her husband-to-be. Indeed, their conjoint power is retroactive—it applies even to vows made before betrothal. The Rebbe develops the contrast between marriage and betrothal and applies it to the relationship between the Jew and G‑d. And it asks the important question: How is it that betrothal confers even greater rights on a man than marriage itself?

1. Making and Unmaking a Vow

The Sidra of Mattot opens with an account of the laws of making a vow, and of having it annulled. There are three ways in which annulment can take place: (1) by a recognized sage (a chacham) who has the power retroactively to release a person from a pledge he has undertaken, (2) by the father of a girl who has made a vow while still under his guardianship; and (3) by a husband who can veto the vow of his wife. The powers of a father and a husband are not retroactive—i.e., they only annul the obligation to fulfill the vow from the present onwards.

In the times when the two distinct stages to a Jewish marriage, betrothal (kiddushin) and marriage proper (nissuin), took place at two different times, there were two corresponding degrees of power of the husband over his wife’s pledges. We would naturally assume that this power would be greater after marriage than during betrothal. But in one respect this is not so. For a man has the power—during betrothal but not after it—to annul the vows his wife made when she was single.1

How is it that betrothal grants the husband greater power over his wife’s commitments than marriage itself?

One explanation is based on the fact that he does not have this right in himself but only in conjunction with the father of the girl.2 Acting together, her father and her betrothed can annul her vows. So that the father, as it were, communicates his authority over the girl while she is single, to her husband to be. On the other hand, a husband has, in and by himself the right of veto and thus he borrows no powers from her father. His right therefore does not extend back to the period when she was single, and not as yet bound to him.

2. Betrothal and Marriage to G‑d

This fact of halacha has a bearing on our religious life. There are two ways a Jew can bind himself to G‑d: In betrothal and in marriage.

When a man is betrothed to a girl, she becomes forbidden to any other man. Thus, when a Jew is “betrothed” to G‑d he has taken a decisive commitment. He has decided to let nothing else waylay and capture his devotion. He has set himself aside from all but G‑d’s will. This in itself is a momentous act, but it is a negative one. He has not yet reached the spiritual equivalent of marriage, the state where he “shall cleave… and be one flesh”3 with his partner. And as the fruit of marriage is children—children who reflect their parents so—the fruit of a total oneness with G‑d is good deeds which express both the will of G‑d and the self-effacement of man. “What are the offspring of the righteous? Their good deeds.”4

3. The Sense of Incompleteness

Although the state of spiritual “marriage” goes far beyond “betrothal,” betrothal has its own unique virtue.

The man who has reached the level of marriage may fall prey to a certain kind of pride. He may feel that he has reached perfect righteousness, that he is now the “master of the house” with the right in himself to “annul vows.” Unlike the betrothed man—he may reason—his power does not need the co-operation of the father.

That this is a fatal error can be seen from the case of Bar Kochba,5 whose attitude proved to the Rabbis that he was not in fact entitled to the name Bar Kochba (literally, “the son of a star,” a Messianic title derived from the verse, “There come a star out of Jacob”), but was instead Bar Koziba (“the son of lies”).

The strength of betrothal lies in the fact that the betrothed knows that he has (halachic) powers only in conjunction with the father. He has no rights in himself. Spiritually, this means that he knows that all his capacities are dependent on G‑d. And, acting together with Him, he can reach heights that he alone could not aspire to. He can arrive at the power of “annulment,” namely, nullifying in himself and the world, the masks of illusion that hide G‑d’s presence from man. And this power is “retroactive,” that is, beyond the normal limitations of time and space. Just as a vow binds, and an annulment breaks the bond, so he, with the help of G‑d, releases the world from its bondage, from falsehood, finitude and the concealment of G‑d.

4. The Strength of Conjunction

The implication is this: However far a man travels on his spiritual journey, even if he “marries” himself completely to G‑d, he must never forget that by his own power he can achieve nothing. He must unite himself with what is higher than himself. There is no room in the religious life for complacency. However high he has risen, there is always something higher to cling to and reach out towards. He is as yet incomplete, as yet only the betrothed. But together with G‑d—the father—it is within his power to annul—the bondage of the world in a way that knows no limits.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. II pp. 612-614)