פרשת מטות-מסעי, תש״פ
Parshat Matot-Masei, 5780
by Rabbi Sydni
Saturday, July 18th, 2020
Promises and the Exercise of Trust
Around this time of year, as I start writing outlines for the High Holy Days and brainstorming what I will teach, I start thinking about my own personal bits of teshuvah, my own personal goals for the new year. With the few months I have left to improve in 5780 and looking forward to 5781, I am hoping to improve my trustworthiness. When I say I will be somewhere at a certain time, I strive to be there. When I say a task will be done on a certain day, it will be done. In recent reflection, I have realized that if I cannot trust myself to find or finish or be present, how can I expect others to trust me to do the same?
Our parashah brings the value of trust out of the purely practical and into the sacred. Right at the beginning of Parshat Mattot, Moshe tells the heads of the tribes of Israel, “This is the word that God commanded: Each man who makes a vow to God or takes an oath prohibiting something for himself, he shall not profane his word. Everything that comes out of his mouth, he shall do.” In later Jewish texts, vows - nedarim - are defined as statements in which one promises to refrain from doing or engaging in something. Oaths - shavuot - are those in which one uses the name of God to promise to do something.
(As a side note, the command goes on to speak about how women’s fathers and husbands can annul their vows under certain conditions. However, the women listening in today are free humans, no longer subservient to their husbands, fathers, and brothers.)
In today’s world, everyone who identifies as a free adult is like the man in the beginning of our parsha. We are responsible for our words, and thus, cannot have our vows or oaths annulled. We are commanded to do everything we promise we will, and that requires a great deal of self-trust. When we trust ourselves enough to make vows and oaths, we make ourselves vulnerable to the possibilities of disappointment and judgment from others, to the real life consequences of making and breaking promises, and to the personal weight of letting ourselves down. Before we make a vow, we must stay conscious of whether we will keep to our own word and of whether that vow truly speaks to the truths we believe. Making any sort of promise, whether to myself or to others, can be painstakingly risky, can be terrifying, but at the same time, can be absolutely holy.
In an explanation of why making vows requires such a spotlight in Torah, Rashi writes about our verse in the parsha, that lo yahel d’varo, “he should not profane his word,” can be seen as lo ya’aseh d’varo hulin, that he should not make his word into hullin. Hullin refers to an object directly opposed to kodashim, directly opposed to things that are holy and worthy of sacrifice or tithing. A person’s word, then, should always be kept kodesh, sanctified. What we say is sacred. The commentator Seforno has a similar interpretation. He compares our verse with the verse in Leviticus: “You shall not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your God - I am Adonai” (Leviticus 19:12) and reinterprets it to say: “‘You shall not swear falsely by My name, or you will profane.’ The intention of this was that a man who makes a neder or shavua should not profane his word, as the one who profanes his word profanes God…” The one who makes a promise to herself and then breaks that promise insults God. When she proves that she is unable to trust herself to keep a vow intact, she also proves that she is unable to be fully part of the holy Israelite community, a community bound together by trust of each other and trust of God.
Perhaps it would be much easier to assume that we are not trustworthy enough to promise anything to ourselves or to others. How do I know I will actually succeed at running each day? How do I know I will actually remember to make that meeting on time? But alternatively, if I succeed at running each day, I will feel the power of success and completion. If I attend that meeting, Iam opening doors to enhanced relationships and opportunities. I cannot progress in who I am, in who I strive to be without making that choice of trust. What the Torah adds to the equation, then, is the deliberation needed before making those vows and oaths. We are each made in the image of God, and therefore, our words hold the real power of creation or even destruction.
As I think forward to the High Holy Days once more, I am comforted by the knowledge that Kol Nidre is part of our service. Kol Nidre, that haunting musical statement that introduces the twenty-five hours of Yom Kippur acts as a legal force annulling all unfulfilled vows to God and self from the past year. As much as we may try to fulfill every promise to do or not to do, our liturgy comforts us with the reminder that we are human. We are made in the flawless image of God, and yet, we sometimes say things we do not mean or things that we will regret later. We are made in the flawless image of God, and therefore, we have inherited the attribute of forgiveness, not just to others, but to ourselves as well.
Let us make a promise or two or three, making sure that our words are as genuine and achievable as they are holy. After we make our promises, let us do everything in our power to keep them (for me, that might mean updating the calendar on my phone or checking my to-do list a little more often). At the same time, let us take that risk of promise-making with the understanding that our God, and hopefully, our loved ones as well, will offer us opportunities for forgiveness, opportunities to make amends and try again. We will experience consequences, but we canget back up again. Beyond trust from others and trust from God, let us seek trust of ourselves, both for the commitments we uphold and for the reasons we know in our hearts we cannot uphold them.