So let’s start this off Jewish-style, by asking a question.
What do we use words for?
Words, our tradition teaches us, have power. We can use them to hurt and to heal, to build and tear down, create and destroy. The universe, with all its wonders, was created with words. This week, our parsha has laws about vows. Who can make them. Who can abridge them. What has to be done with them. What’s so important about making promises? We do it all the time, right?
God used words to create reality. And so, in fact, do we. When we make a vow—even just a “sure, I’ll put the trash out later,” and how much more so an actual promise, an oath--we create a future reality. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, quoting Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin, calls this “performative utterance.” We create that obligation. We create that future.
What’s another word for an obligation? A covenant. Like the covenant, for example, between God and Israel, one that has stood the test of time for millennia. Or the promise God made never to destroy humanity by flood, no matter how annoying we may be.
When someone says “Behold, you are betrothed to me” under the chuppah, they’re not describing a marriage, they’re creating it. When the Rabbinical court, the Bet Din, used to announce the new moon, they weren’t just saying “Hey, we can’t see the moon tonight”—they were creating a new month! When someone asks me to do something and I say, “consider it done,” I’m not speaking metaphorically; they know that they can rest assured it will be completed. As it is said, “You must believe in things that are not true. How else can they become?”
What else do promises do? They create trust. I trust, when someone gives me their word, that they will keep it, and the people who know me are aware that my word is my bond. Our courts, our governments, our social and political institutions, all of these are built on a foundation of trust. Without trust, our relationships break down. A free society simply cannot exist without trust. We must always, always strive to be worthy of the trust others place in us. When we give our word, it must always hold the weight of the world.
And now, I trust that Liz will lead us in Musaf.
Chevrei Tzedek is community built and community run. We rotate who gives sermons. On this blog, you will see a variety of styles, reflecting the diversity of our community.