Have you ever noticed how common it is for people to swear in God's name? Also, have you noticed that, in our society, making a promise in God's name does not make much of a difference in how well the promise is kept?
This week's Torah portion, Matot, begins with laws regarding vows—promises made in God's name. It is clear that the Hebrew Bible takes these promises very seriously. The second verse of the parashah states:
"When people make a vow to Adonai or take an oath imposing an obligation on themselves, they shall not break their pledge; they must carry out all that has crossed their lips" (Numbers 30:3).
Now, it seems that keeping promises was very important in the ancient world. In a society where there were few legal courts to enforce the terms of agreements—in a culture where people really had to depend upon one another for their survival—there must have been tremendous social pressure for people to keep their word.
That is part of the social background of this Torah passage and it does help us to understand why the Torah puts such emphasis on keeping promises. However, the Torah is about more than social conventions. The importance of keeping a vow, as stated in the Torah, is not just to keep society together, it also is to keep faith with God. Breaking a promise is an offense against God, not just an offense against the person to whom the promise was made. Why should that be?
In his classical commentary on Pirkei Avot, Yonah Gerondi states that we should regard our mouths as being like the sacred vessels used in the Temple. Like the sacred vessels, our mouths were created to praise God. Also, like those vessels, anything placed within our mouths becomes holy. Our everyday words are holy and keeping a promise, therefore, is a sacred duty.
How would that awareness change the way that you think about your words? How would your life be transformed by thinking about the words you speak to your friends, to your spouse, and to your children as being sacred?
We, too, in the 21st century have many social conventions about how we are supposed to use words. From an early age, we teach our children to use words like "please" and "thank you." We all understand the sometimes subtle differences between speaking respectfully and speaking hurtfully. People in many professions (including rabbis) are trained to keep some words confidential. However, we don't usually think of the rules of being polite, being respectful and keeping confidences as being sacred. But, maybe we should.
The choices we make when we use words are about more than just following society's rules. They are about our connection to something beyond ourselves. When I maintain an awareness of the sacred obligation to use words wisely, I feel that have submitted myself to a truth that is deeper than my own interests, and wider than the interests of my community. When I regard my words as forming a sacred trust, I feel that I have entered into an agreement with eternity.
So, the next time you say, "I swear to God…," mean it. The next time you talk to a friend about your day, do so with reverence for the bond between you. The next time you tell your children to say, "Please," think about how you are engaged in an act of holiness.