We all make promises. Routinely, we promise to run errands and perform tasks for other people. Commitments, whether taking a neighbor’s recyclables to a recycling center or bringing meals to someone in the hospital, bind us to each other. While it is true that some of these promises may appear trivial in our eyes, those whom we promise to visit, to call and to remember, see our promises quite differently. Every commitment we keep fosters a connection between two or more people. And in a fractured society which appears to be ever more intent upon hastily rushing through daily life, we are afforded opportunities to uphold and to let drop our commitments, upholding and dropping our people. The challenge before us is to uphold one another by prioritizing the promises we make.
This week’s Parsha, Matot-Masei, opens with a directive by Moses to the chiefs of the 12 tribes, commanding them to transmit a message to all of Israel: “ A person who commits himself to a promise or a vow and enforces his vow by promising in God’s name, shall not make his words empty- he shall fulfill all that exits his mouth.” Each Israelite possesses great power - to rid his words of significance or to fill words with spiritual meaning. So important are spoken promises that 12 chiefs are deputized to spread the message to the community.
Why doesn’t Moshe himself instruct the Israelites to be cautious when making vows? Put simply- because each member of the community knows these leaders and, over the course of daily life, it is more likely that a local leader has personally made a promise to a tribal member than Moses. Having 12 chiefs walking throughout the community and instructing people in the holy act of promise-keeping will make a much stronger and greater impression on everyday people.
You and I are a long way away from Moses. We never encountered God at Sinai and performing animal sacrifice is as unrealistic as picnicking on the Moon. However, promise-keeping is as routine as breathing. Each of us has opportunities before us daily- to construct lines of respect and humanity between each other by keeping a promise. True enough- some promises are bigger than others and require much more effort. But, we all appreciate the intrinsic value of keeping our word and we also know that fulfilling small promises lead to keeping more significant commitments. Picture yourself as fulfilling God’s word by collecting your friend’s mail. Every vacation, every weekend you collect some mail; keeping a promise and becoming aware of the influence you bring into our world. Imagine a few million daily promises offered with sincerity and kept with devotion. Our world would change.