Words Spoken, Words Promised

Headshot of Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Headshot of Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, is the Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, where she also received her ordination. She also holds her MBA in Marketing Management from Baruch College, and helps bring those skills and expertise into the operational practices of rabbis and congregations throughout North America.

posted on July 15, 2018
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

In conversations and/or written communication, there can easily come a moment when a single word makes all the difference in the world. One missing word, one wrong word, one misused word – one word can change the entire conversation, and even at times, stop the conversation. So it makes me think of words more closely – how we choose words in general, what is intended through words, and how words communicate what we want to say. Words function, as we have all heard in so many important functions: words can hurt, words can explain, words can heal, words can comfort, words can show concern, words can touch.

The opening words of this week’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Mase, reminds us of yet another use of words: “ Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying: This is the thing that God has commanded: If a man takes a vow (neder) to God or swears an oath (shevuah) to establish a prohibition on himself), he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do.”According to the Torah, words are also promises – promises to God as well as promises to ourselves.

Interestingly, the Torah distinguishes between the two - a neder (a vow) is a promise to do something (i.e. I promise to volunteer my time to help others), while a shevuah (an oath) may prohibit a person from performing an act, or might be used to require an act that is not ordinarily required (i.e. I swear to stop smoking). Vows and oaths are promises, pledges to ourselves, to others, and to God. Because of this, the Torah cautions us against desecrating our words, reminding us that we must live by that which we promise. If you make a promise, says the Torah, you must be prepared to live by it and to uphold it!

In a Torah world, a person would never consider making a pledge to God and then default on it. There are examples of vows taken by our biblical ancestors and even the communal covenant between humans and God is itself a vow. How much more so with a promise or oath taken voluntarily by one individual! After all, no one is ever obligated to make a vow or to take an oath. Would not each of us know ourselves well enough to know that our vows and oaths are realistic, doable, and personally meaningful? Yet, the later rabbinic literature recognizes that people did (and do) sometimes default on promises. For this reason, the Mishnah caution against the use of such promises of words. In the section entitled Hulin, Rabbi Judah says: ‘better is he who vows and pays’ while Rabbi Meir says: ‘better is he who does not vow at all.’ Vows and oaths are not bad; they are simply serious business!

Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah help us face the truth that people do sometimes default on their promises. However, from their discussion (and that of other rabbis), we come to learn more about the rabbinic processes for dissolution of vows, the process of ridding oneself of responsibility for words said and not acted upon. Nowhere is this more poignantly depicted than in the Kol Nidre prayer itself in which we pray that all vows, promises, obligations and oaths we took in the past year – or will take in the year to come - be absolved and dissolved. And, in the hope that God indeed hears that prayer and allows our forgotten promises to lose their power and open our words once again to the possibility of holiness, the Kol Nidre ends with the words: And the Lord said “I have forgiven according to your word.’

So, what is this overwhelming power of words of which the Torah speaks? Rashi helps us to think about this in his commentary to the verse from our Torah portion. Commenting on the phrase ‘he shall not desecrate his word’, he reminds us that a person must not desecrate his words for human words are a sacred trust. Sacred relationships – between humans and God and between humans and humans – develop through honesty and trust. Broken words lead to broken trust which can ultimately lead to an end to the relationship itself. Words promised and promises fulfilled help build trust, restore faith, and ultimately seal these sacred relationships.

Proverbs 18:31 teaches: “Mavet v’hayyim b’yad halashon – Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” We humans have words for all occasions – words of tragedy; words of joy and exhilaration; words of despair. And yet, we all know that in the heat of the moment, there are times when we say things we don’t mean – when we make promises that are later forgotten. Our words do indeed have the power to kill and the power to breathe life. The choice is ours in how we use our words, the actual words we use, and how we use them.

In conversations and/or written communication, there can easily come a moment when a single word makes all the difference in the world. One missing word, one wrong word, one misused word – one word can change the entire conversation, and even at times, stop the conversation. So it makes me think of words more closely – how we choose words in general, what is intended through words, and how words communicate what we want to say. Words function, as we have all heard in so many important functions: words can hurt, words can explain, words can heal, words can comfort, words can show concern, words can touch.

The opening words of this week’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Mase, reminds us of yet another use of words: “ Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying: This is the thing that God has commanded: If a man takes a vow (neder) to God or swears an oath (shevuah) to establish a prohibition on himself), he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do.”According to the Torah, words are also promises – promises to God as well as promises to ourselves.

Interestingly, the Torah distinguishes between the two - a neder (a vow) is a promise to do something (i.e. I promise to volunteer my time to help others), while a shevuah (an oath) may prohibit a person from performing an act, or might be used to require an act that is not ordinarily required (i.e. I swear to stop smoking). Vows and oaths are promises, pledges to ourselves, to others, and to God. Because of this, the Torah cautions us against desecrating our words, reminding us that we must live by that which we promise. If you make a promise, says the Torah, you must be prepared to live by it and to uphold it!

In a Torah world, a person would never consider making a pledge to God and then default on it. There are examples of vows taken by our biblical ancestors and even the communal covenant between humans and God is itself a vow. How much more so with a promise or oath taken voluntarily by one individual! After all, no one is ever obligated to make a vow or to take an oath. Would not each of us know ourselves well enough to know that our vows and oaths are realistic, doable, and personally meaningful? Yet, the later rabbinic literature recognizes that people did (and do) sometimes default on promises. For this reason, the Mishnah caution against the use of such promises of words. In the section entitled Hulin, Rabbi Judah says: ‘better is he who vows and pays’ while Rabbi Meir says: ‘better is he who does not vow at all.’ Vows and oaths are not bad; they are simply serious business!

Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah help us face the truth that people do sometimes default on their promises. However, from their discussion (and that of other rabbis), we come to learn more about the rabbinic processes for dissolution of vows, the process of ridding oneself of responsibility for words said and not acted upon. Nowhere is this more poignantly depicted than in the Kol Nidre prayer itself in which we pray that all vows, promises, obligations and oaths we took in the past year – or will take in the year to come - be absolved and dissolved. And, in the hope that God indeed hears that prayer and allows our forgotten promises to lose their power and open our words once again to the possibility of holiness, the Kol Nidre ends with the words: And the Lord said “I have forgiven according to your word.’

So, what is this overwhelming power of words of which the Torah speaks? Rashi helps us to think about this in his commentary to the verse from our Torah portion. Commenting on the phrase ‘he shall not desecrate his word’, he reminds us that a person must not desecrate his words for human words are a sacred trust. Sacred relationships – between humans and God and between humans and humans – develop through honesty and trust. Broken words lead to broken trust which can ultimately lead to an end to the relationship itself. Words promised and promises fulfilled help build trust, restore faith, and ultimately seal these sacred relationships.

Proverbs 18:31 teaches: “Mavet v’hayyim b’yad halashon – Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” We humans have words for all occasions – words of tragedy; words of joy and exhilaration; words of despair. And yet, we all know that in the heat of the moment, there are times when we say things we don’t mean – when we make promises that are later forgotten. Our words do indeed have the power to kill and the power to breathe life. The choice is ours in how we use our words, the actual words we use, and how we use them.

May this Shabbat of Mattot-Mase inspire each of us to consider carefully the promises of our words and the words of our promise. May we each move a step closer to live according to the words that come from the mouth. And, may those words help breathe life into ourselves, into others, and into the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Shabbat Shalom.