This week’s Torah portion contains the nazir’s vow. What is a nazir? A Jewish ascetic. As a measure of extra piety a person pledged to abstain from alcohol, not cut his hair and avoid contact with the dead. The most famous nazirites were Samuel and Samson. Samuel anointed David as king. Samson’s long hair was the source of his strength (and an inspiration for a number of songs). If not for Delilah’s seduction…
Today Judaism has by and large excised such ascetic sensibilities. We do not idealize denying ourselves worldly pleasures. The hallmarks of our holidays are kiddush wine and festive meals. What Jewish event does not have great food? Still I wonder about making vows, oaths and promises.
People offer promises all the time. There are the familiar New Year’s pledges of promising to lose weight or work out more. I promise to eat less, or to drink less. I pledge to give more tzedakah. I vow to learn more, or attend services more often. Whatever forms these personal vows take, the central question is about their efficacy and value. Let’s be honest. More often than not such promises quickly become empty and soon go unfulfilled.
We make far more promises to ourselves, our family and friends than we keep. Of course we have good excuses why we could not achieve what we pledged. This is why Judaism actually frowns upon making vows. Our tradition values words. It worries that when words are offered they might soon become false. In fact in traditional circles when someone makes a promise, they will say, bli neder. This phrase means it is not really a vow.
By saying this, our promise is not made to God or using God’s name. If we were to inadvertently make a pledge to God that we do not fulfill we would transgress something greater, namely the third of the Ten Commandments: 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 our tradition’s concern. Our words matter; they can shape reality. In our contemporary age when words have become abbreviated in the flurry of text messages, or tossed around so cheaply on Facebook and Twitter, we would do well to recall this message. Be careful of what you promise. Be careful of your words.
Rather than making promises, perhaps it would be better to get out and do stuff. People become disheartened by good that is promised and remains unfulfilled. People become discouraged by good words that never materialize into actions. Our lives, and the lives of those around us, are enriched by goodness that is performed. That and that alone will sustain us.
Forget about making promises. Instead, to borrow a phrase from long ago, just do it.