Rabbi David Walk
We're in the midst of the Presidential Election Campaign (Doesn't it seem like we're always in the midst of a presidential election campaign?), and the speeches are flying back and forth. Never was so much said by so many signifying so little. It's like the words don't matter anymore. Veracity and accuracy are seemingly irrelevant. One supposed news station (Hint: It rhymes with Sox) was 'mostly' to 'totally false' ('pants on fire') in 59% of assertions made by their personalities and their pundit guests, according to Politifact.com. Other so-called news sources only did a little better, MSNBC 44%, and CNN came in at 22%. In this context that looks good, but should we expect one fifth of statements made to us by those we trust be false? How can we expect the candidates to be truthful if the news stations aren't? We must be very careful when we utter or write words. Words, whether written or spoken, are powerful agents. They create realities. The late actor and comedian, Robin Williams once said, 'No matter what people tell you, words can change the world.' We Jews believe this idea very strongly. We proclaim that God created the heavens and earth with spoken words. We study words in our Torah with great intensity. In this week's Torah reading we see a powerful example of the capacity of words.
At the beginning of this week's parsha we have the following statement: If a person makes a vow to the Lord or makes an oath to prohibit themselves, one shall not violate their word; according to whatever came out of one's mouth, one shall do (Numbers 30:3). This verse is the source of the mitzvoth of nedarim (vows) and Shavuot (oaths). There is much discussion about the difference between the two types of promises. The most popular approach is that a neder is a promise connected to the object being discussed, while a shavua is a commitment upon myself to do or not do some action. But I'm not really so interested in those technicalities this week. My concern is the phrase 'one shall not violate their word'. In Hebrew the word I translated as 'violate' is yachel. This term can mean a plethora of things. The most popular translation is 'break', but you could translate it as 'void' or 'nullify'. That fits in with the authoritative Aramaic translation of Onkelos (35-120 CE), who uses the word yevatel. However, others translate yachel as 'profane' or 'pollute'. This follows the position of Rashi, who explains that one must never treat their words as something unholy.
What makes a person's words holy? The easiest answer is that our verse is talking about oaths