1. Shabbat Shalom
2. There was a time when vows were an important part of society – in the days long before DNA testing, security cameras and CSI. Sometimes, the only way a community could have some closure in a situation where there were no witnesses or when there was no other way to determine who was right in a dispute, the only course of action was to have one or both parties take a vow that they were telling the truth. These vows were enforced with penalties for taking such a vow when they were made knowing that the vow was a lie.
3. There is also another kind of vow. It is a promise that you make to yourself. It is a kind of New Year’s Resolution on steroids. We make all kinds of promises to ourselves, to lose weight, to save money, to move to a better home, to get a better job, to give more to charity. Most of the time we either forget that we made the promise or we forget how really hard it is to keep these kinds of promises. A vow raises the stakes. It is a formal declaration to God that we are serious about making changes in our life and if we don’t then God will have the right to send down a divine punishment for our being either too lazy or absent minded to keep what we promised.
4. In either case, there is this notion that our words should have power in our lives. What we say should be connected to what we do. A vow taken is a promise that must be fulfilled. Today this whole notion seems to be quaint and archaic. Words don’t mean anything anymore. We see politicians make promises that we know the moment they make them that they will never be fulfilled. We view a steady stream of advertising that promises to remove our wrinkles, make our clothing cleaner and our teeth whiter. We don’t believe any of that stuff but the promises keep coming. Now we have the internet where anyone can say the most outlandish things and there will not only be people who believe what is said, they will forward the lie to hundreds of their best friends. In our modern world, words can no longer be trusted. If you can’t get the promise in writing, then it is not a real promise.
5. Yet, there are still people whose word is their bond. There are men and women who don’t say much but when they do, everyone knows you can rely on them to do what they say. I don’t know if anyone here remembers Congressman Sam Rayburn, the representative from Texas to Congress who died in 1961. He had a reputation for following through on the promises he made. In fact, one day, a reporter noted that Rayburn never wrote down what he was promising the people in his district. The reporter asked the Congressman, “How do you remember all the things you promise people?” Rayburn replied, “If what you promise is the right thing to do, you don’t have to worry about forgetting them.”
6. There is one area, however, where vows still play an important role in society. Wedding vows still carry a great deal of weight and power in society. When a couple promise to love and care for each other, that vow is an open ended commitment for sexual fidelity and unconditional support. In just a few more weeks, my youngest son will exchange vows with a woman he met in high school. My son may be young and idealistic, but he and his fiance are going into this relationship with their eyes open and their feet on the ground. They know exactly why they want to do this and they have every intention to being true to their promise.
7. Our society seems to not care anymore about the vow of being married. Fiction, movies, and gossip magazines feed us a steady stream of steamy affairs, philandering and exotic flings. If a space alien were to read almost any work of fiction or news, he would come to the conclusion that most married couples are not faithful to their wedding vows. It used to be that we would at least punish the politicians who could not be faithful to their wives, but today, that does not seem to be an issue. Former presidential candidate John Edwards was not vilified by the press by his unfaithfulness, but because the wife he was cheating on was battling cancer and he was, to say the least, not very supportive in her time of need.
8. Our parsha teaches that our words have to mean something. Our words have power and that power is a special gift from God. Just as God spoke words and through the power of speech the world was created, so too our words have the power to make our world a better place. Words can bring peace between two feuding friends or two warring countries. Words can call attention to the beauty and majesty of our world. Words can overcome feelings of depression or despair and bring out feelings of affection and love. Words, expressed in prayer and meditation can help us to understand our importance in the universe that God created.
9. Rabban Gamliel, one of the great sages of the Talmud, had a servant, a wise man named Tavi. One day Rabban Gamliel sent Tavi into the market place and asked him to bring back the greatest delicacy he could find in the shuk. Tavi returned that evening with a tongue. He told his master, “A kind tongue is one of the sweetest things in all the world.” The next day, Rabban Gamliel sent Tavi back to the market to find the worst food he could imagine. Tavi returned that evening with a tongue. Rabban Gamliel said to Tavi, “I thought you said that a tongue was the best food in the shuk?” Tavi replied, “When a tongue is good, there is nothing better, but when a tongue is bad, there is nothing worse.”
10. The power of words does cut both ways. We can use our words to build up, or we can use our words to tear down. Words can make things clear, or they can make our lives more confused. Words can help us aspire to greatness, or cut us down and destroy all hope. For this reason Judaism is very concerned that words be used constructively; we must use our words in a responsible manner so that we are not the cause of harm to someone else. As parents we know that our words can inspire our children to achieve great things but if we are mean and cruel, the best we can hope for is that therapy, healing words, will help restore their self esteem.
11. What applies to parents also applies to every aspect of our lives. Are we respectful with our words when we address clerks in a store or when we order a meal at a restaurant? Sometimes we are judged not by the way we treat our friends but by the way we address strangers. There are some who think that if they don’t complain, yell and demand in a store, then they will not get the best price. Sometimes this is true, but remember also, that bullying a sales associate in a department store or the wait staff at a restaurant will only cause resentment and anger in the very people you need to help you with your purchases. I was once told that it is very important to speak in a nice tone with those who check in your baggage at the airport. It is not unknown for travelers who give the counter staff a hard time to discover that their luggage has been diverted to a destination far from where they want it to be. I don’t know if it true or not but I can say that it always pays to be nice.
12. Finally, what applies to strangers applies even more to those that we love. Not being true to wedding vows is always a quick way to end a marriage. But speaking to our spouse either in anger or in a degrading manner probably is even more destructive to a good relationship. Nobody likes to be badgered or shamed in public. And yet, refraining from harsh speech in a marriage is not enough, we need to also add words of affection, tenderness and love. I know a story of a woman who complained to her husband that he never told her “I love you”. He looked up from his newspaper and replied, “I told you I loved you when we got married, if it changes, I will let you know.” This clearly is a man that needs to invest more words in his relationship.
13. The law of this country tells us that if something is important, if there is money involved, or if services are required, it is best to write it down and sign a contract. Contracts should be read carefully and if there are passages that are not understood, then we should get them clarified before we commit ourselves by signing our names. It is advisable to consult an attorney before signing any contract for anything important. We should not rely on words when the stakes are very high.
14. But if we decide to live our lives where our word is our bond, no matter if it is for our benefit or for something that could hurt us financially or personally, then we will raise our lives to a higher standard and we will find that our friends and neighbors will have the greatest respect for us. I recently spoke to a family after the death of their father. The son, who worked many years in his father’s business, said with a great deal of pride, “I never saw my father treat a customer or a vender harshly. He was always honest and fair.” There are few words we could add to a eulogy more honorable than these.
15. The Rabbis of the Talmud did not like vows. In every age, Rabbis advised Jews to be honest in all their words so that taking a vow would not be necessary. The Sages advised us to make a commitment and stick with it, without swearing in the name of God. We should not need a vow to remain committed to our words, we should be careful about what we say and about what we promise and always follow through on our word.
16. If we can make our words stand for something in the rest of our life, then our words of prayer on Shabbat will mean even more. If we use our words to make the world a better place, then our words of prayer will help us lift our lives and our hearts to even greater heights. Our siddur constantly reminds us that God promised Abraham that God would redeem Abraham’s descendants from slavery and bring them to the land God promised the patriarch. As God fulfilled God’s promise to us and to our ancestors, so too we should be sure to fulfill all the words that we speak, in the marketplace and in our synagogue. Let us use our words to make our world a kinder, honest and better world. A world in which our words bring us honor and bring honor to God as we say,
AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM