This week’s Torah portion is a double portion which always occurs during the Three Weeks prior to Tisha b’Av, the darkest day on the Jewish calendar when we recall the destruction of the Temple. The parashah opens with a discussion about vows. “If a person makes a vow….that one shall do whatever comes out of his/her mouth.” (Numbers 30:3) It’s easy to get lost in the patriarchy of the opening verses of this parashah – does a father or a husband have the authority and the right to validate or invalidate the vows of a woman in their household? Important conversation? Absolutely and, G-d willing, we will have more of this conversation. For this moment, however, I would like to look at this particular verse in a much broader sense and suggest that much of this parashah is really about “keeping one’s word.”
Words and speech are important in Judaism. G-d creates the world through speech. G-d speaks to and through people in the Torah. G-d makes the Covenant with the Children of Israel through speech. We spend hours and hours talking about lashon hara, “bad speech,” and the effects it has on both individuals and the community as a whole. Out of the forty-four sins that are listed in the Yom Kippur “al chet” confessions, roughly a third are related to speech. In the Talmud, speaking ill of somebody is compared to murder and that notion was passed on into Yiddish in the saying: “A patsh farhailt zikh un a vort gedenkt zikh” – “A slap heals, but a word is remembered.” What we say in English is really very different: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Not so in Judaism. Sounds like speech is really important, doesn’t it?
In fact, there is an entire tractate of the Talmud, Nedarim, which deals with the power of words in the form of vows and promises. The details are complicated, but the overriding principle is simple: Don’t make promises lightly! And, if you happen to utter one, be sure to fulfill it because your words count. So serious is the non-fulfilment of a neder, a vow, that we devote the opening moments of the most sacred day of the year, Yom Kippur, to the prayer of Kol Nidrei, the annulment of ill-considered promises to G-d. Some pious Jews, even when making any promise, declare that they do it b’li neder, “without a vow,” that is, they are declaring that they do not wish the promise to have the status of a vow, the breaking of which is a serious offense.
Judaism teaches us that our mouths are like “holy vessels” so we should consider the things we say and especially the promises we make – to others and to ourselves.
Underlying this parashah is also the teaching that the Covenant/Promise G-d has given has been kept and the Children of Israel have been brought up to the Promised Land. We just read two weeks ago in parashat Balak: “G-d is not a person that would lie; neither the child of a human that should repent. Will it not be done what G-d has said?” And, because G-d’s Covenant/Promise has been fulfilled and because we are made in the “image of G-d,” we should keep our promise, our word, too.
For us at Beit T’Shuvah, “Covenant” has another meaning. It is our Fifth Recovery Task. Harriet has said that covenant is the decision to have faith, that it is a commitment to place principles above personalities; and if you don’t come back to visit, you come back to live. Covenant actualizes the core principle of faith and integrates the principles of Holy Soul, T’shuvah, Seeking Wisdom, and Obligation. Covenant is about living a life of recovery. Covenant is about keeping the promise we made to our self, to our community, and to our Higher Power.