We are often taught to be careful with what we say. It might be hurtful to others (ona’at dvarim), it might make us look foolish (chilul Hashem), or it might not exactly be true (sheker), so think twice before talking. On top of the social reasons to be careful with what we say, the Torah tells us about shvuah, or an oath, and says that if a person swears that they did or did not do something or swears that they will do or will not do something, the Torah says that we must keep our word or we will have violated one of the mitzvot. So, when we see this week’s parsha (Torah portion) has yet another commandment called “Don’t break your word on a vow” (“Lo yachel dvaro”), it sounds like we have yet another mitzvah telling us the same thing. Be careful with what you say. Why does the Torah repeat itself?
Rabbeinu Bachye on Bamidbar 30:3 on the passuk איש כי ידור נדר לה׳ (when a person makes a vow to Hashem), makes an important distinction between nedarim, or vows, and shavuot. He says that we have the ability to create our realities through our nedarim. I can say that this chocolate bar is so off limits to me that it becomes the equivalent of not kosher for me. I can even say that an object meant for a mitzvah is off limits to me and I may not and cannot perform that mitzvah. If I don’t follow the new reality I have created with my words, I have violated the mitzvah of לא יחל דברו, don’t make your word mundane. This is because our words have the power to create and become a new reality.
Words can make our reality. It can have an upside and help us with a diet (imagine chocolate being not kosher just for you) or make a commitment to do something real, but it has also potential for serious negativity. We can make our items forbidden for anyone else to enjoy merely by making a neder and living a more self-centered life or distance ourselves from a mitzvah through making access to them forbidden by words that we use. We can say that I will never pick up a Tehillim (book of Psalms) again using the language of neder and the Tehillim book will become as unkosher as chocolate.
Each day we hopefully try to make ourselves into better people and we need to realize that the power is often in our mouths to commit to saying or not saying things that will help us become the best Jewish person we can be, since our commitments and the follow-through create much of our reality.
By Rabbi Moshe Shields
Rabbi Moshe Shields is Middle School principal at Berman and lives with his wife Rachael and five children in the wonderful Olney community.