I Swear…

I swear to God, if…
The Cowboys win the superbowl…(okay, you now know my allegiance)
I get an A on my test…
I get the promotion…

I will…
Go to synagogue every week…
Study for 10 hours a day …
Donate my raise to charity…

Have you ever had a thought like this? Have you ever wished for something so badly that you swear — and maybe even invoke God — to do something good if that wish comes true? And how many times do you actually fulfill your promise when the desired outcome is achieved?

This type of thinking is sometimes called “karmic bargaining,” a term coined by scholars who study the cognitive origins and nature of religious belief. This reflects the idea that people sometimes “endorse and engage in the practice of performing good acts in order to secure an unrelated future desired outcome.” (Check out an experimental study on the topic published by my two college mentors, Dr. Konia Banerjee and Dr. Paul Bloom!)

Similarly, Jewish tradition understands the power of vows and oaths, of these “karmic bargains” that we sometimes make, and takes them very seriously. Much of this week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei (the last of the Book of Numbers) discusses the ramifications for making vows, stating: “If a householder makes a vow to Adonai 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). In other words, once you swear to do something, there is no turning back.

We see this principle in action in the story of Yiftach in the Book of Judges. Rabbi Tamara Esquenazi and Rabbi Andrea Weiss summarize the story:

“[The Book of] Judges tells of a warrior named Yiftach who vows to sacrifice whoever or whatever comes out from his house should he win a battle (Judges 11:30-31). Tragically, his only child — a daughter — comes out to meet him and thus becomes the promised victim. The daughter, whose name is never revealed, willingly capitulates to her father’s obligation to fulfill his vow” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 991-992).

A prohibition against taking vows appears in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not swear falsely by the name of your God, Adonai; for Adonai will not clear one who swears falsely by God’s name” (Exodus 20:7). A whole tractate of the Talmud, Nedarim, is dedicated to discussing and determining appropriate and inappropriate vows. The Kol Nidre prayer, one of the most dramatic and powerful in all of our Yom Kippur liturgy, is supposed to absolve us of the guilt that comes with a vow that has been made, but not fulfilled, over the past year. Whenever making plans for the future, many modern Jews will include the caveat: bli neder, which loosely translates to “no promises,” just in case the plans don’t pan out, which would render a presumed vow unfulfilled. I’ve sometimes heard people say things like: “I’ll see you next Tuesday, bli neder.”

What is Jewish tradition trying to accomplish with all of these rules (and resulting hesitation and angst) about vows? It’s human nature to make promises that, in the moment, feel urgent and important. But these promises are easy to forget as time moves forward. When we make casual promises, we undermine the sanctity of our word. When we invoke God in these promises, we cheapen God’s very being. Our tradition tries to maintain the sanctity of a promise by limiting its invocation.

Judaism reminds us that our word means everything.

Judaism reminds us that our promises are binding.

Judaism reminds us that our commitments are powerful.

Let’s make them count.

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