11 Elul 5773 / August 16-17, 2013
By this week’s portion, Ki Tetzeh, Moses must have been parched, as he has literally been speaking for what seems like months (at least when divvied up into separate Torah portions that’s the case!). This week, we come across a whole slew of laws, ranging from the need to stone rebellious children, to not cross-dressing, to an exclusion of eunuchs from the community (sorry Lord Varys).
Within all of the requirements shared this week, I am particularly intrigued by the one regarding vows:
“You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to God, having made the promise with your own mouth.”
Effectively, if you make a vow, you will be held accountable. But if you don’t make a vow, then there’s nothing to be held accountable for.
What’s going on here?
We’re learning that the phrase, “I swear to God” has some historical roots, and that if one used that (or a similar) phrase, one would be obligated to follow through with the promise made!
What makes the phrase different or unique? A couple of things: first, invoking God’s name without a purpose in and of itself would be using God’s name in vain (a violation of Commandment #3 of the 10 Commandments). And second, by bringing God into the equation, the vow being made is no longer between people – but rather, in the traditional understanding, shifts to being between a person and the Divine. And it’s pretty obvious that the tradition’s stance is that once you bring God into the equation, you’d better deliver on your vows.
On a more encouraging note, there’s also some positive psychology in play here, as the tradition doesn’t allow for simply putting promises into words, but an understanding that doing so necessitates the actualization of said words.
We regularly use language that invokes God when making promises:
“I swear to God that I will…”
“With God as my witness, I will not…”
What does it mean when we do so? Are we heightening the level of our commitment? Are we using that language simply to placate others into thinking we’re more serious than we really are?
While from a traditional perspective, using God’s name in this way obviously ups the ante, for those of us who don’t necessary believe in a God who would somehow hold us accountable for our language choices, what can we learn from this section?
Ultimately, I think the takeaway point needs to be that we need to think twice about the words that escape our lips, and that we must strive to account for the promises we make.
This Shabbat, reflect on how frequently you make promises to others (including to God and/or to yourself), and what your scorecard is as it relates to promise fulfillment. What is it that leads you to make promises? What is it that drives you to fulfill the promises you make?
By delivering on our promises, we maintain our own positive reputations and relationships. The lesson therefore is that if it’s not a promise you’re going to be able to deliver on, don’t make it!