A Promise is a King of Infinite Hope

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, July 14, 2023 / 25 Tamuz 5783

Summary: Why do we make vows? Is it a way to honor the present moment, or is something else at play? This week’s Torah reading confronts us with the reality of our vows.

Reading Time: Three and a half minutes

Two days ago, the Czech novelist, Milan Kundera, died at the age of 94. I was in college when some of his most important books were going to print, not least of which was The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The work made a deep impression on me at the time, and I probably reread it three times in the following few years. At a certain point, however, I made a vow not to read it again, in the same manner that I have made commitments not to revisit certain television shows that meant the world to me when I was a boy, such as Underdog. I don’t want to sully my fond recollections with my current sensibilities; also, there is little chance that a cartoon show from 1964 would entertain me today. On the few occasions when I have broken a similar vow, the purity of that memory was destroyed.

You may have had a similar experience with some of the music you loved as a teenager. Some of those songs have stood the test of time, preserving their ability to engage your emotions or take you back; then there are those other bands who, in hindsight, no longer have the juice. Those riffs that once could instantly get you out of a bad mood now just feel stale.

The human mind is very good at looking back and seeing how much we have changed, yet it is notoriously suspect at predicting how we will feel or what will matter to us in the future.

Kundera put it this way: “We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.”

As true as we can all recognize these insights to be, in the moment it is all too easy to forget that what matters today may not matter tomorrow. Our tradition captures this tension in this week’s double parshah of Matot Masei. Matot recounts the biblical stipulations surrounding our oaths and vows. A neder is a commitment to perform a particular action, while a shevuah is an oath to refrain from an action.

In the ancient world of our ancestors, language was never cheap; the value of both the spoken and written word was held in high regard, for our ancestors understood how language shapes and changes the world.

The Bible, in particular, seems intent on ensuring a certain fidelity to the word and to our commitments. In an age when written contracts were rare, societal functioning required a degree of trust in our spoken agreements. Moreover, those commitments were not limited to what we promised to one another: they also extended into the divine realm. A promise to God was just as binding and permanent as one made to people.

By the time of Chaza’l: Our Sages of blessed memory, (approximately 250 BCE-650 CE), however, it was understood that human fallibility often resulted in broken vows and along with it, a breakdown in societal trust. They discouraged people from making formalized nedarim, turning instead to contract law.

While the legalities of oath-taking in the ancient world hold historical interest for us, the psychological dimensions continue to have contemporary relevance. There is a piece of making an oath that seems connected to our desire to freeze time in the present moment. Our current set of values and even our feelings seem so solid to us that we desire to encase them in a vow so they will still be available to us in the future. There is something about a vow that lacks humility—let’s call it the bravado of the present moment. On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine a society functioning without the illusion of stability that vows provide. On the other hand, the only solid and unchanging piece of existence is change. Everything else needs to be renegotiated. As I have been writing about recently, our primal fear of change seems connected to mortality, yet it is our embrace of change that keeps us most alive.

Learning to honor our commitments is essential; apparently learning to let go is just as important.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

    1. Can you recall a promise you made and then broke? What led you to make the promise, and what led you to not fulfill it?
    2. How have you learned to navigate between the flexibility change demands and the necessity of honoring your commitments?
    3. How did your family of origin discuss promises and commitments? Did you have friends from a different cultural background who had another perspective on promises? What was it?

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