“I promised myself I wouldn’t …” It’s a phrase many of us have probably uttered more than once. It is usually followed by a “but” and an excuse. We make promises to ourselves and to others all the time. During the first week of January, gyms are packed with those eager to fulfill their resolutions to work out more in the coming year, only to hit the wall mid-March and drop it all together. At the beginning of a new school year, a child might make a promise to stay organized or work very hard, but by November life has caught up to her. The locker is a disaster and homework is a struggle to get turned in.
Promises are easy to make and hard to keep. Not keeping them can result in anger at others, anger at ourselves, and worst of all, a loss of trust in others which can ruin important relationships.
We are nearing the beginning of a brand new Jewish year. We have the opportunity to look at a future full of promise and possibility and decide what we’d like our year to look like. But, if we make a promise we cannot keep, we might find ourselves disappointed, resentful, and feeling like a failure. In just under a month, we will stand together at Yom Kippur and ask God to forgive those actions we shouldn’t have done, but if God is always forgiving us, do our promises hold any real meaning?
This week we read parshat Ki Tetzei, which discusses a variety of laws, including going to war, picking favorite children, how to treat captives and women, what to do with baby birds in a nest, and many more mitzvot. In fact this parshah has more mitzvot in its words than any other singleparshah. As these laws are given to us to help build a society, we are confronted about making promises. In chapter 23, verses 22-24 we learn “When you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing. You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, having made the promise with your mouth.”
Making a vow, according to our text, is voluntary. No one is forcing you to promise God that you’ll go to shul more if God does “x” for you. Likewise, no one is forcing you to make a promise to go to the gym at the beginning of the year. We are reminded that our words are permanent; once they leave our mouths, they can never be taken back. We have the choice to offer promises, and the responsibility to be realistic about what we can reasonably accomplish. Because a vow is voluntary, once it’s said, it must be done.
The Torah goes on to teach that as long as a person keeps his vows, he will remain in God’s favor. The same holds true for human beings. So often our relationships are damaged because of broken promises and unmet expectations. Bottom line: don’t say it if you don’t mean it. And if you mean it, reap the satisfying rewards. What a fulfilling feeling it is to actually use that gym membership, to stay on top of school projects, and to say, “I promised myself I wouldn’t … and I didn’t.”
THIS TOO IS TORAH: Too often, people view a separation between their religious life and their work life. The Torah is the most basic guide to best business practices and human rights. Remember that your children are watching you to gain clues on how to behave, think, believe. Discuss with your children your beliefs, ask them about their own. Spend one night every two weeks talking to each other about what is happening in the world and what it teaches us about how we should act. I bet that within 5 minutes of reading the Torah portion of each week you will find at least 2 ways it relates to your professional life. What a gift to share with your children.