In just about 10 weeks, we Jews the world over will begin Yom Kippur by annulling our unfulfilled and unfulfillable vows at Kol Nidre. The origin of that practice and its Aramaic liturgy are quite obscure. But I think its point is profound, and is something I think about each year beginning on the parsha for this Shabbat, Mattot-Massei [or just Mattot, if the parshiyot are not conjoined].
Kol Nidre and the beginning of our parsha each remind us that all too often our lives are filled with broken promises. Good deeds, virtuous character traits, generous gifts – these are all, literally, easier said than done. It is easy to promise to do the right thing. But it can be hard to keep the promise.
Our reading for this Shabbat begins [Numbers 30:2-3]: “Whenever a person makes a vow or an oath, placing a burden on himself/herself, lo yachel devaro, but must do perform all that comes out of his/her mouth.” The phrase I have transliterated but not translated might be taken in a couple of different senses.
Rashi understands the phrase to mean “do not desecrate your promises,” deriving the world yachel from chullin, like chol, meaning non-sacred, and chillul, or violation of the sacred, or empty, vain and meaningless. In this reading, the verse means that people might never come through on their promises. They should remember that promises to God – which are the subject of the parsha – have great holiness, and we must take care not to ruin that potential goodness by failing to follow through. (We should extend that warning not only to what we promise God, but what we promise each other as well.)
But Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, comments not-so-gently that anyone who offers such an interpretation “holds a mistake in his hands.” Yachel, he says, actually means delay, or do not postpone the fulfillment of your promise. Depending upon the context of the promise, a person might violate the prohibition of lo yachel devaro if he or she does not fulfill the vow immediately, or at most within a year of the promise. Yes, it is all too easy to plan to perform a mitzvah … later, later, later. But according to this reading of the Torah, the violation comes in putting off the mitzvah.
A relevant Halakhic application of this mitzvah has to do with … fundraising! (As the CRB development staff and all Jewish professionals will want to know.) If you make a pledge to tzedaka, you cannot defer the gift indefinitely. So pony up!
This week’s parsha reminds us that words matter. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Then do it. Because the Torah forbids us from failing to fulfill our promises to God and to people.
Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky