Reading news reports this summer about the breakdown of talks, and trust, between our nation’s leaders over the debt ceiling has been deeply depressing but not surprising.
It’s just one example, however dramatic, of the chasm between public pledges made and kept.
We have become so used to government officials in Jerusalem as well as Washington making empty promises that we no longer register shock or disappointment when their actions contradict their previous assurances, where “word of honor” has no meaning.
It’s not just politicians who break their word publicly, seemingly without shame, and get away with it. From a young mother acquitted on charges of killing her 2-year-old daughter, to professional athletes insisting they never took steroids, to media executives swearing they had no knowledge of employees hacking into countless private phone calls, we witness the daily devaluation of language and the lack of accountability in our society.
But there was a time when one’s word meant something, when a vow was an act of holiness, and not just in biblical days — as we read in the Torah last Shabbat — but in our own family histories.
At the outset of this past week’s Torah portion, Mattot, we are given an account of the laws related to taking an oath or vow (biblical examples include pledging not to drink wine or to cut one’s hair), and the Divine obligation not to break one’s word.
Stringent rules applied to annulling such promises are spelled out in the Torah and elaborated on by the rabbis of the Talmud. As an ongoing reminder of the sanctity of our spoken words, we begin Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, with the Kol Nidre, the act of canceling vows made in the past year.
A century ago, my maternal grandfather, Elazar (Louis) Friedlander, made a vow that changed his life. He was barely a teenager when, on being told that his parents and older siblings planned to leave Poland for the promise of a better life in America, he took a neder, or oath, insisting he would never do so.
As a young yeshiva student at the time, he had been told by his rebbes that America was a “treife medina,” an unholy place where the practice of Judaism was being sacrificed in the quest for wealth and other vices.
I can only imagine the strength of his conviction on seeing his immediate family leave him behind, alone at the age of 13.
The years passed. My Zaidy’s family settled in Baltimore, while he became a young Talmudic scholar in Poland, married and had a daughter. And then he received a letter telling him that his mother was dying, that her wish was for him to come to America.
Torn between his commitments to family and faith, he sought out the advice of the famed Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, still known as the leading rabbinic authority on the laws and ethics of the spoken word, from lashon hara (gossip) to vows.
According to family lore, my Zaidy traveled a long distance to Radun (now Belarus), where Rabbi Kagan had a yeshiva, and arrived at night. Rabbi Kagan welcomed him and said it was best not to make a determination in haste, and to discuss the situation the next day.
In the end, the rabbi said that if my Zaidy would dedicate himself to “putting out the fires” of assimilation in America, his vow could be annulled and he could join his family, which he did.
By the time he arrived on these shores, though, his mother had died, and it took him three years to raise the funds to bring his wife and daughter — my mother — to Baltimore. There he became a highly respected Torah scholar who, throughout the rest of his long life, spent his days in his tallis and tefillin, poring over the pages of the Talmud.
But that’s another story. My point here is that we have lost the ability to even imagine how seriously words were taken a century ago — that someone would travel a great distance to consult with a rabbinic authority over an internal and personal pledge made years earlier, jeopardizing a reunion with one’s closest family.
British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that it is no coincidence that the Torah gives its account of the laws of vows and oaths near the end of the Book of Numbers, just before the Jewish people were to end their 40 years of wandering in the desert. They were about to enter the land of Israel and create a society not only of civil laws but of a relationship between themselves and God.
Rabbi Sacks calls this unique concept “the politics of covenant,” where words are holy and moral obligations deeply held.
He reasons that “social institutions in a free society depend on trust, and trust means that we keep our word,” and that in turn means “treating words as holy, vows and oaths as sacrosanct.”
In a society far removed from these concepts and ideals, it is important to be reminded that our words should be true to others and to ourselves.
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