I have twins who are almost 5 years old. One of the things that my wife and I are trying to teach them is the power of words, both for the positive and the negative.
They are learning that words can inspire, motivate and excite a situation, as they discover new and innovative ways to talk to each other, to us as parents and to the people with whom they interact. They are also learning the harder lesson that words can just as easily hurt, insult and change a situation for the worse in just a matter of moments. It is a lesson that we all learn; yet, how we carry forth these critical childhood moments of language education and speech management can determine the kinds of lives we lead, and the kinds of interactions we have with one another.
Parshat Matot opens with a lesson in the power of words. God commands Moshe to speak to the leaders of the tribes, saying, "If a person makes a vow to Adonai or takes an oath imposing an obligation on him/herself, he/she shall not break that pledge; he/she must carry out all that has crossed his/her lips" (Numbers 30:3). I am leaving aside the sexist language of this parsha, where women cannot make vows, and am operating with the knowledge that we have moved past the ancient subjugation of women. Having said that, the power of the word is what matters here.
Our ancestors understood that when we make a vow, promising to give something to God, or take an oath regarding our own actions, this was the highest and most serious endeavor, as the power of speech is what separates us most critically from the animal world. "Baruch She'amar V'hayah Ha'olam, God spoke and the world came into being."
In the first of his two important comments on this section of Torah, the Chatam Sofer, 19th century sage and scholar, teaches that "the entire Torah is dependent on this matter of vows, for it is the foundation of foundations, for if we don't keep our word through the vows we make, then there is no foundation for our receiving Torah in the first place" (Iturei Torah).
How many of us say things that we don't mean? How many of us use words or phrases like, "I swear..."or "I promise..."or "You have my word..." in a colloquial or trivial fashion? I catch myself doing that all the time. Our society has lost the power of our word and that is a detriment to our ethical composure. With all of the scandals that have rocked us, from Enron on down, we know that our capitalist nature has in some ways affected our ability to be honest; making the most money at any cost drives people to make false promises or lie about the situation. That is why Torah is so important and the cycle of our religious life is so necessary in today's world; we must all work hard to ensure that we are all leading lives founded in truth, dedication to keeping our word and thinking before we speak.
In noticing that the Torah calls on Moshe to speak to the "heads of the tribes," the Chatam Sofer says, "People in high public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep. Their behavior could lessen the respect others have for the spoken word."
Our public figures, to a large extent, operate on saying things in order to keep power. While this is not true for all leaders, too many have been found guilty of lying, misrepresenting the facts, making empty promises and not keeping their word. Of all the terrible things happening in the world today, two stand out in this regard.
First, the war in Iraq -- which has taken 2,500 American lives and tens thousands of Iraqi lives, and cost us our reputation in the world through Abu Ghraib -- was based on false premises and lies. How can we trust a leader who lies in regard to the highest level of commitment, war and peace? The amount of misconception in this war, and in the whole "war on terror," speaks volumes to what the Chatam Sofer was warning leaders against.
Second, the response to Hurricane Katrina. After failing to adequately respond to the crisis while it was happening, the federal government made promise after promise to the recovery and rebuilding of the devastated Gulfport region, only to renege or abandon most of those promises. Nearly a year after the hurricane, whole parts of the area still look like a war zone. There is no better illustration of false promises than what has not happened in New Orleans. Thankfully, religious groups, including our own Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and local synagogues have been partnering with other religious institutions to do our small part. But promises not kept are failing thousands of innocent and needy people.
As I try and teach my children to speak kindly and wisely, I am thankful for the words of the Torah and the comments of the Chatam Sofer, who guide me in offering a legacy of honesty and commitment to the value of integrity. May we all find ways to keep our word, imitating God, by whose word our entire existence was created.