Monday, July 14, 2014

The Danger in Promises

Shabbat Matot
Bamidbar 30:2-32:42
21 Tamuz 5774 / July 18 – 19, 2014

The Danger in Promises
by Shifra Mince, MH Park Slope

This week's Torah portion is the second to last in the book of Bamidbar, or Numbers. This book basically chronicles the Israelites wandering through the desert and so the penultimate chapter of the book is describing the ending of that journey. After 40 years of wandering the desert, the Israelites are pretty close now to entering the Land of Israel.

One of the most prominent themes of this week's portion is promises. The portion begins with a list of rules about taking vows. The Torah says, "When a man vows a vow to God, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth."

We are being reminded that our speech has power and that if we make a vow to do or not do something, that vow is truly binding. In fact, this issue is so serious that the famous Kol Nidre prayer that we say on Yom Kippur is all about cancelling the vows of the previous year.

For example, if someone vowed to never eat chocolate, that vow is taken pretty seriously. They can only annul that vow on Yom Kippur when all vows are annulled. It is for this reason that observant Jews will sometimes refrain from saying "I swear." There is a sense that making such a binding agreement, even if its just a verbal agreement, has some real-world power. Not following through may have serious consequences.

Right after listing the rules about making vows, the Torah tells us a story of a promise. Two tribes, Reuven and Gad, decide they would rather stay on the eastern bank of the Jordan river and not live on the western side with the rest of the Jewish people. Moshe tells them that in order to do this they must promise to fight for and conquer the rest of the land with the rest of the Israelites. They agree. They promise to help with the fight and only after its done return to their homes on the east side of the river.

What is going on here? Why does the Torah specifically tell us very serious rules about making promises and then tell us a story about a big promise being made. Is the Torah warning us about making promises? Is it telling us that we can't generally follow through with them and so its better not to make them at all? Is it simply showing us an example of a promise in order to illustrate the importance of following through with one's word?

Perhaps the whole idea of a promise is pointing at an even larger promise that is setting the entire stage of this story: the promise of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. The Jewish people have been wandering through the desert because God promised the Land of Israel to Abraham. But there are consequences, dirty consequences to that promise. We see just how violent the people have to become in order to conquer the land. It’s not simple. 400 years after God's promise to Abraham, the landscape of Israel seems to have changed.

This portion seems to be inviting us to explore both sides of promise-making. What is it like to just say a promise and then "flake out" and not follow through? Well, you hurt people. But what are the consequences of making a promise AND following through, as God is doing by bringing the people into Israel? Maybe this kind of promise is ALSO dangerous. Emotions run high because this land has been promised to them, even though they don't currently live there. Then they have to violently conquer the land.

With tensions in Israel rising, I would like to invite everyone to take a moment and think about promises in our lives. Beyond just reflecting on the power of speech, you might notice the promises others have made to you that you are still holding onto. Are those healthy visions/dreams for the future? Or are you just holding onto something because it was promised long ago? Maybe take a moment to allow the message of this week's portion to sink in. Promises are powerful and dangerous and must be taken seriously. But even more so, being promised something can be dangerous because it allows us to act from a past point of view rather than a present or forward looking point of view.

May this Shabbat bring us each greater inner peace and bring the world closer to global peace.

Awesome G-D Cast video, on topic:


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