There are promises made tacitly or implicitly which are elevated to the realm of commitment. We can disappoint others, often without saying a word. When we feel that pledges have been broken, our stomachs turn sour and our driving can be distracted.
How can I make a promise without saying a word? Each of us has roles in life that create an expectation. Such promises become an obligation almost without perceivable limits. These promises are communicated merely by status without the explicit statement of a pledge. We expect doctors to not only heal but offer compassion. We expect judges and lawyers to not only be proficient in the law but also exhibit high ethical standards. We expect parents to be caretakers and set aside self-interest. Dare I ask what we think politicians have pledged upon taking the oath of office? Becoming a Rabbi, I am expected not only to be a spiritual leader but also to be an exemplary person. Oy!
I pondered this issue as I read Torah for this week. Torah begins: “If a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” Numbers 30:3.
There are two elements to this pasuk. The first element is a clear directive not to forego an obligation made. The expectation that promises will be kept is essential to the proper functioning of any society, economy or political entity. Failing to keep a promise, communicates that you don’t value the person to whom it was made. The offended person might assume that your self-interest was more important than your commitment. Relationships are subsequently damaged when trust is broken.
The second element of this pasuk is a limitation. The requirement not to break a promise arises when the pledge is made verbally. I’ll offer that promises made in writing, by email, or otherwise communicated, are the equivalent of the spoken word for these purposes. But what of the promises made that are not uttered at all. These unspoken pledges by virtue of one’s role vis a vis another may seem as tangible if not more compelling than a pledge reduced to word or writing.
The implied promise created by our status or role in this world does create an expectation. It is a precarious situation for any of us.
The best we can do when we believe that another has broken their word is to address one another in our truth. When expressing our disappointment we can leave space for discussion. Most often there is hope for a better relationship with transparency and commitment. All of this is much preferred to the offended person remaining silent. Without sharing with each other the way in which we are perceived, there is no possibility for improvement and only the likelihood of further disenchantment.
Perhaps with this understanding of unspoken promises there will be less upset stomachs and distracted driving for everyone.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame