Happy New Year, my friends. I know that some of you are saying to fellow Jews, “Happy secular New Year,” as if perhaps we are unable to distinguish between Jan. 1 and Rosh Hashanah. And yet, I tell my congregants, we are fortunate to have two calendrical opportunities to voice our commitment — an oath, a resolution, if you will — to improve who we are and what we do. How fortunate we are to make resolutions twice in one calendar year!
There are nearly 30 references to oaths and vows found in our Scripture. There are dire consequences for broken vows. One example is directed to the leaders of the tribes and comes from B’midbar, “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.” (Numbers 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 passage 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 (parents, executives, principals, rabbis, et. al.) 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. Parents, executives, team 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)
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). You need to know that your words and actions are directly related to the welfare of others and the success or failure of your organization or family. 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 created the world (Genesis, Chapter 1). 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.
Marcia and I wish you all a very Happy New Year.