I Swear, I Promise – Parshat Yitro 5782

How many chances are too many chances for someone to learn a lesson or make a change? On the one hand, I want to believe a person when they say, “I swear, I’ll never do that again.” On the other hand, experience tells me that for some people, keeping these types of promises is a struggle that’s deep and not easily overcome. 

It’s harder for children to grasp the concept of lasting behavioral change, but we hope and anticipate that it comes with maturity. How many times do parents hear the plea, “I promise I’ll listen this time,” only to have the promise broken again? 

Promises, and the consequences of breaking them, are outlined in the Torah. As early as Abraham’s time, promises were made between nations. These promises were usually sworn upon a man’s thigh, the direct link to his future. Abraham didn’t “swear on his mother’s grave,” but he did make promises based on the future of his progeny. This is likely why our Torah portion this week, Parshat Yitro, includes promises and swearing on God’s name in the ten central commandments of our nation. 

The giving of the 10 Commandments by God to Moshe and the people Israel means we now have a set of laws to live by, a guide to being a free people outside of slavery. Specifically in chapter 20, verse 7, we read in the fourth commandment, “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.” Another translation suggests that you shouldn’t resort to using God’s name to make your lies more plausible. Either way, the commandment is clear that using God’s name as proof that you’re telling the truth is not something we’re supposed to do.

I can almost imagine the Israelite nation at the mountain, receiving the commandments, knowing that God, their God, was stronger than all the others and formulating plans to use that to their advantage when other nations threatened them. God understood this human instinct and so put this commandment in place for us.

This particular commandment reminds us of both the power of our words and the strength of our convictions. Is it worth swearing or promising if there’s a chance you can’t keep that promise? And is there a better chance of keeping the promise if you know that you, and you alone, are responsible? Perhaps the reason that changes in behavior are so challenging is because when we swear to or on God, we remove the burden from ourselves to keep the promise. Parshat Yitro, among its many famous lessons, teaches that there is only one person responsible for making the changes we want to see in ourselves.

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