Minute Mitzvah: Keep Your Word

2009.06.01
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(N.B.: If you’re not hip to things eth(n)ospiritual, you may want to skip this post. Otherwise, feel free to comment.)

FOR ME, THE SECRET TO Jewish living can be summed up in two Hebrew words: “Na’aseh v’nishmah (We will do, and we will understand).” This is the nation’s famous response to Moses in Exodus 24:7 (which chapter/verse combo delights my wife no end), after the prophet asks them whether or not they’re willing to lead Torah-codified lives: “Right on! And we’ll learn by doing.”

“Torah” is often translated as “Law,” but a better translation would be “Instruction.” The sages of our tradition saw it as something alive, manifested in the day-to-day actions of ordinary people as they relate to each other and to God. Most of the 613 mitzvot (“commandments,” or what my teacher Rabbi Jack Gabriel translates as “God-connections”) deal with the currently defunct Temple sacrifical cult. But in 1931, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan sifted 270 which can still be done today — and which Serious Jews consider obligatory, or at least attainable.

When I returned to Judaism in 1997, I wanted to “do it right” and plunged headlong into a (still incomplete) study of the mitzvot. It occurred to me that most Jews are already doing 80 or so of these every day but don’t know it. And, according to Rabbi Kagan, knowing is the key: If, when your grandma enters the room, you rise because it’s good manners, that’s one experience. But if you do it because it’s expected by Torah, that’s another. Only you will know the difference. But isn’t that where it starts?

Thus: “Monday Mitzvah,” a weekly exercise in “making Torah.” (And, hopefully, a better world into the bargain.)

Today: Keep your word.

The human world is very fragile, and not only on the physical level. Human society is built on trust, and the basis of trust is the expectation that others will keep their promises to us and vice versa. That’s not to say it’s easy, especially among the important distractions of our daily lives, but when we break our word — even “just this once,” even “just a little white lie” — we disappoint someone somewhere. This adds to the net disappointment and despair in the world. And why would we want to do that? Torah tells us that we are bound to fulfill what passes from our lips, whether or not we use the magic word “promise;” better that we should say nothing than we should say and not do.

Exercise: Pay attention the next time you’re about to promise something.

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