Let me offer some very brief words of Torah. I cannot pass up the opportunity to teach when so many people are here, but I also don’t want to stand in the way of the delicious dinners that await us.
The Torah portion contains the vow of the Nazir. As a measure of extra piety a person could pledge to abstain from alcohol, not cut his hair and avoid contact with the dead. It should be self-evident that I am not a Nazir. (That is a bald joke not a drinking joke.) The most famous Nazirites were Samuel and Samson. (I am thankful to those who caught the Springsteen reference in the email blast. “Romeo and Juliet, Samson and Delilah…’Cause when we kiss, Fire.”)
But the question for this evening is about vows, oaths and promises. People make promises all the time. There are the familiar New Year’s pledges of promising to work out more. I promise to eat less, drink less. I pledge to give more to tzedakah. I vow to learn more, or attend services more often. Whatever forms these personal vows take, the question is about their efficacy and value. More often than not they quickly become empty and soon go unfulfilled.
We make far more promises to ourselves and our family and our friends than we keep. More often than not we have good excuses why these remain unfulfilled. This is why Judaism actually frowns up making vows and pledges. Our tradition so values words that it worries when words are spoken that can soon become false. In fact in traditional circles when someone makes a promise, they will say, bli neder. This means that it is not a vow. It is not a promise made to God or using God’s name. For then a promise to God would become false and we would then transgress something greater, namely Ten Commandment #3: You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord. This is also the origins of the beautiful Kol Nidre prayer. It serves to nullify unwitting vows.
This is the concern of our tradition. Our words matter, they can shape reality. In our age when words have become abbreviated in the flurry of text messages we would do well to recall this message. Be careful of what we promise. It would be better simply to do. People become disheartened by good that is promised and remains unfulfilled; then we become disheartened, we become discouraged. Our lives, and the lives of those around us, are enriched by goodness that is performed. That and that alone will sustain us.