And Promises To Keep…

Can you talk about the importance of keeping your promises?

Dear Noah,

We are pretty sure that you do not expect us to reply saying, “Actually, promises don’t matter.” On the other hand, if you are hoping that we will provide you with a convincing case to show to someone in your life who does not keep his or her promises, and that they will respond, “Oh! I didn’t realize this was important,” we’re afraid that we are not going to satisfy you. Someone who speaks carelessly or whose word is not one of honor, is not doing so because of a lack of information. It is a character flaw not a lack of information.

However, it is possible that a person who is careless with words may not recognize how harmful that is in your relationship. They aren’t motivated to put in the immense effort that must go into controlling one’s speech. Keeping one’s word is part of a larger category of laws that govern the unique human ability to speak. Animals communicate; people speak. People can convey abstract ideas and express non-tangible concepts. They can also use their words to deeply wound, profoundly damage, and seriously harm other individuals. Keeping one’s word is only one of a large group of rules having to do with speech that God expects His children to master. Included among them is how to correctly use one’s words to admonish another person.

One tip which might help is to understand that keeping promises and not lying are western cultural conventions derived from the Bible. As is well known, cultures rooted in other writings have entirely different conventions about this. Some allow or encourage lying to non-members of their own tribe or culture. Now, a little-known Biblical principle is that whatever I am prohibited from doing to others, I am also prohibited from doing to myself. Thus, the Sixth Commandment prohibits me from murdering others, and it also applies to myself–in other words, suicide.

Along the same lines, we are not allowed to lie to ourselves or to fail to keep promises to ourselves as well. These failings cause us to lose faith in ourselves, just as they cause us to lose faith in others who lie. Not keeping promises harms our relationships with others but, just as importantly, it also harms our relationship with ourselves.

If we are guessing correctly, you are frustrated with someone in your life. Chances are there are things you do that frustrate them as well. Perhaps you can open a conversation by asking what verbal habits you have that bother them. If you both want the relationship to thrive and for you to grow closer, finding ways to please each other – and to tolerate flaws in the other – is necessary.

We don’t know if not keeping one’s word means not being ready in five minutes after saying one would be or if it means one’s wife getting together with an ex-boyfriend after promising not to do so. May we suggest that you explore what is bothering you and narrow your focus before beginning to tackle the problem you seem to be facing.

With prayers that our words are well received,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

This Ask the Rabbi is dedicated in memory of Grace Cabrara, age 45, a caregiver from the Philippines who stayed at the side of her 95-year-old patient, Aviva Sela. While Aviva survived (although her son and daughter-in law did not), Grace was taken captive by Hamas terrorists who murdered her and dumped her body in a way that led to it being recovered only twelve days later. Mrs. Sela’s daughter said about Grace, “She was simply an angel with her feet on the ground. What a good soul, how wise… we are so thankful to the wonderful Grace who became part of our family, and we are crying over her loss.”

And with prayers for the safe release of those hostages who remain alive, and among them, Ohad Hayalomi, age 49. He, his wife, 12-year-old son, 10-year-old daughter and their toddler daughter were grabbed by terrorists. His wife and daughters managed to escape before reaching Gaza, while his son Eitan was taken hostage and released in a deal. The family has received no information about Ohad and pray that he is alive in Gaza.

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