2 Av 5772 / June 20-21, 2012
This week, we read the last two portions of the Book of Numbers – Matot and Masei.
We learn immediately how serious it is to make a vow. In our tradition, vows are significant and carry great weight, as a vow is made between a person (or people) and God. If you do not fulfill the terms of your vow, you have effectively broken a promise to God, which has significant consequences. Once a vow is extended, it becomes binding, and to not go through with it is cause for punishment. From the tradition’s perspective, it would be much better to not make such vows, and then simply to do the actions or to make the lifestyle changes contemplated. We find this guidance in the Book of Deuteronomy, in the portion of Ki Tetzeh, which we’ll read a few weeks from now:
"If you make a vow to God, do not be slow to fulfill it, for God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from making a vow, you will not be guilty. Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to God with your own mouth." (Deuteronomy 23:21-23)
To give you a sense of what might constitute a vow in the Biblical sense, here are a couple of examples:
Example 1: When the Israelites fought a battle in the portion of Chukat a few weeks ago, they vowed ahead of time to completely destroy the enemy’s cities if God granted them victory. They were indeed victorious, and the enemy’s cities were completely destroyed as promised.
Example 2: In Samuel I (part of the Prophets section of the Hebrew Bible), Hannah, a woman who had been unable to bear a child, vowed that if God gave her a son she would consecrate him to the service of God. Thereafter, she birthed Samuel, who was indeed consecrated to service.
While promises we make to one another on a regular basis are not treated by tradition as being the same as a vow, given that we each contain a Divine spark, are we conscious enough about keeping our promises / doing what we say we’ll do?
A buddy of mine recently told me that a friend of his invited him out to the bar, and when he arrived, his friend was nowhere to be found having bailed in favor of attending a house party without letting him know.
On the flip side, most of us have responded “yes” to an invitation and then failed to show up, whether the invitation and response were extended in person, via a phone call, an email, or on Facebook.
While we often chide others for being noncommittal, there is certainly a strong argument to be made that not giving an answer is better than giving a “yes” and then failing to show up.
When we break promises we’ve made, we break the trust that exists between us, and we damage our relationships – often irreparably.
This Shabbat (and going forward), reflect on where and when you make promises that you cannot or do not keep. Make a conscious effort to only promise to others what you can actually deliver. Recognize the inherent Divinity in others, and treat your commitments to them the way our ancestors treated their commitments to God. Your relationships will be strengthened, your reputation secured, and your word binding.