The Seriousness of a Broken Promise

Yael Eckstein  |  July 26, 2022

Yael Eckstein kneels in front of and holds hands of elderly woman wearing multiple layers of clothing and yellow scarf on her head,

When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said. — Numbers 30:2

Each week in synagogue, Jews read through the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The Torah portion for this week is a double reading, Matot-Massei, from Numbers 30:2–36:13. Matot means “branches,” and Massei means “journeys.”

One thing I’ve learned from being a mother of four is the importance of watching what I commit to. I can’t count how many times that I’ve told my kids I would buy something or do something with them, forgotten about it, and then was reminded with a plaintive, “You promised!” Now most of the time I didn’t actually make a promise, but to my kids, if I said I would do something, I may as well have signed a contract.

On a more serious note, our kids remind us of the importance of keeping our word. They never forget those “promises” we make to them. And whether or not we follow through on those verbal commitments becomes much more important than the specifics of the commitments themselves. It’s a matter of integrity. Fulfilling what we have said we will do builds trust. It lets our children know that we take them seriously.

And it’s not just about our children. How many times have you told someone you would give them a call, that you would get together for lunch, or that you would attend a get-together, and then failed to follow through?

The Seriousness of a Broken Promise

In this week’s Torah portion, we are warned to be careful to fulfill the spoken commitments we make: “When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.”

This verse equates “a vow to the LORD” with “an oath to obligate himself by a pledge.” In other words, our commitments to ourselves and to other people are held to the same standard as our commitments to God. There is a powerful lesson here about the seriousness of a broken promise.

Unfortunately, we may often feel less obligated to fulfill a commitment made to someone of lesser stature, like children. However, the Bible is telling us that every commitment we make is equally binding. It’s a matter of our own integrity.

And as the rabbis in the Talmud explain, the fact that keeping our verbal commitments is a commandment in the Bible teaches us the seriousness of a broken promise — in God’s eyes, a broken promise to another person is a sin against Him.

Just as God keeps His promises, we must keep ours, as well.

Your Turn:

Are there outstanding commitments that you’ve made that haven’t been fulfilled? Now is the time to follow through.

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