Saturday, July 6, 2013

Promises, Promises

By Rabbi Thomas Louchheim

42nd Torah Portion, 9th in B’midbar

Matot – Masei 30:2-36:13 (245 verses)


Matot: Moses explains to the Israelites the laws concerning vows made by men and women. Israel successfully wages war against the Midianites. The laws regarding the spoils of war are outlined. The tribes of Reuben and Gad request permission to stay on the east bank of the Jordan; at first Moses rebukes them but they promise to serve as shock troops for the conquest of Canaan and he relents.

Masei: The journey from Egypt to the Jordan is recounted. Moses instructs the people to remove the current inhabitants of the land that God will give them and to destroy their gods. The boundaries of Eretz Yisraeil are defined along with those of the Levitical cities and the cities of refuge. God makes a precise distinction between murder and manslaughter. The laws of inheritance that apply to Israelite women are explained.


There are nearly 30 references to oaths and vows found in our Scripture. There are dire consequences for broken vows. Why another reference in this Torah portion, and why is it directed to “the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel” (30:2)? We read, “If a man makes a vow to Adonai or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself [nafsho – his own soul], he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips” (30:3). Why distinguish the leaders from anyone else? Rashi suggests that the leaders were instructed first as a sign of respect. Afterwards they taught everyone else. I believe that this is directed to the leaders because of their influence upon the rest of the community.

One of the responsibilities of leadership is the ability to discern and respond to communal needs and to keep the community happy – whatever that community: workers, family, and groups with common interests. Individuals have desires and gripes, and groups have vested interests. Leaders must serve and be sensitive to both. A vow is a promise, and promises are made to deliver the goods. Moses instructs us that this law should make us aware of the sanctity of the word and the importance of keeping the promises we make. Leaders have great responsibility to be exemplary: a fulfilled promise is an indication of honesty and reliable leadership. Followers are inspired by and respect leaders who keep their word. The Talmud declares, “He who holds fast to his word has the approval of the Sages” (Shevuot 10b). For the Muslim, keeping one’s word is in keeping with the word of God: “Most abominable in the sight of God is that you say what you do not do” (Koran, Sura 61:3).

                A leader’s promise is a commitment to action that followers trust. A leader who keeps his promises has followers who trust his word. This trust is an antidote to the community’s fears and the risks of making a meaningful commitment. Trust is reliance on a leader who does not speak or act in a way that is not in the interests of the community. One of the most important assets of any group – whether an organization or a family — is the expectation that their leader or parent will guide them to a better place, and that their trust and confidence are merited.

At the personal level, when I keep a commitment to you, your trust in me increases and I can call upon it. I may even make mistakes, but still that trust in my commitment need not be compromised. Making and keeping promises to ourselves and to others, little by little, we increase our strength until, unified, our ability to act together is more powerful than any of the forces that act upon us.

Acting in a responsible way means, deeply and spiritually, holding oneself accountable (nafsho). Leaders need to know that their words and actions are directly related to the welfare of others and the success or failure of the organization. Whether it is your children or your employees, those who follow your leadership build their hope around promises you make. Perhaps this is what Rashi was thinking when he commented on the dire consequences of “breaking” one’s commitment, noting that the word “break” (yachel) is related to the root chet lamed lamed (“to secularize”). Your spoken word is holy. Your word is connected to God. Words (Genesis, Chapter One) created the world. Words make reality. Uttering a promise implies a divine creation to which you are committing yourself. Making promises, setting goals, and being true to them enable every other positive thing in our lives.


1.     How do you feel when someone makes a promise to you and doesn’t keep their word or makes excuses to get out of it?

2.     If a “vow” you’ve made is not faithfully honored, how can you be trusted?

3.     As a parent, have you made a vow you have not kept? Have your children told you?

4.     As a leader of an organization, is there a vow your employees or members assume you have made but have not kept?


Make a promise to someone. Observe their response to your promise: their trust or lack thereof is a clear indicator of how you have fulfilled past commitments with them.