Breaking promises

Breaking promises

Matot-Masei | Numbers 30:2-36:13

It was a typical park bench conversation. I hadn’t seen my friend for some time, and we both were delighted to run into each other by chance that afternoon.

Withdrawing to a bench to spend a few minutes catching up, we found ourselves discussing mutual acquaintances, including Sam, a person who had many fine qualities. But the one that made the biggest impression upon my friend and me was Sam’s impeccable honesty.

“Once Sam says something,” my pal remarked, “he never backs out or changes his mind. You can count on him to keep his word.”

Something deep inside of me then spoke up. “Is it always a virtue to keep your word and never change your mind? Isn’t that a sign of a certain rigidity, which is not always beneficial, and may even sometimes be morally wrong?” 

My friend objected. “Surely,” he said, “you don’t mean to condone lying.”

Before changing the conversation, I was reminded of this week’s double Torah portion, Matot-Masei, and of its opening passages which discuss the binding nature of vows and promises. “When a man vows a vow…or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” (Numbers 30:3)

It is apparent that being true to one’s words is a universal ethical standard. The Torah, however, also recognizes that there are situations that call for the revocation of those promises. 

The classic case of misguided adherence to one’s words is the story, narrated in the Book of Judges, of Jephthah. He was a great military leader who, when he embarked upon a battle against the Ammonites, vowed that if God would grant him victory, he would offer “whatever comes out of the door of my house…as a burnt offering.” Tragically, it was his daughter, his only child, who came out to meet him. He felt bound by his words and “did to her as he vowed.”

In certain circumstances, a sense of being bound by one’s promises is an example of integrity and honesty of the highest order. But even one’s promises need to be assessed in the light of changing circumstances. When those circumstances demand a loosening of the bond of verbal commitment, our tradition knows of procedures whereby one can be released even from his most fervent oaths and vows.

There is an additional lesson here, and that is the lesson of forgiveness. Sometimes human relationships necessitate certain reactions. My vow to have nothing to do with you may have been based upon the factual consideration that your behavior was undesirable and might have a negative effect upon me or my family. But I must be ready to say, “That was then and this is now.” 

And when I realize that, I must reexamine my past promises and commitments and be ready to undo them. That is the underlying concept behind the procedure known as hatarat nedarim, the undoing of the bonds of words. 

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