Several years ago, we were in the process of buying our house in Israel, and had found a great home being sold by its original owner. After a brief period of negotiations, we finally managed to agree on what we felt was a fair price. We were ecstatic, excited to have found a home in the Jewish State for a price that was within our budget.
A week later the seller called me and said, "When you made the offer, were you serious? Had you made a decision to buy the house?" My palms immediately started to sweat. I could sense that this phone call wasn’t going to end well.
"Look," he said. "When I told a neighbor on our final price, he couldn’t believe it. He told me that he'd give me 100 thousand shekel more than you offered for the house."
I thought I knew what was coming next. I was sure of it. We had no written agreement, not even on a napkin. He was going to raise the price or the deal was off. I was sure of it. But then he told me, "But I'm a man of my word. These things are very important to me. I just wanted to make sure that you really had decided to buy the house, and since you do, I will honor our verbal agreement."
Parashat Matot opens with a description of the halachot of nedarim -- oaths. Before describing how a person can nullify his oaths and who can make and nullify different types of nedarim, the Torah establishes an important rule. Moshe tells us that, "Should a person make an oath to God he shall not desecrate his word; Whatever comes from his mouth he shall do.” (Bamidbar 30:3) At first glance, it might seem that this only applies to oaths or promises. What about regular types of commitments? What if I promise to do something, but don’t swear to it?
Rambam, in the Sefer Hamitzvot explains that in saying "Do not desecrate your words," the Torah is warning us in plain and simple language, not to go back on our word. In the words of the Midrash, "Do not make your words chullin – profane". When you make commitments, keep them. When you make promises, honor them. Why is it so important that the Torah command me not only to keep my oaths, but also to keep my non-oaths?
The answer to this question lies in understanding the choice of words in the Midrash. When the Midrash teaches us not to make our word chullin – "profane", this reminds us that from the perspective of the Torah, everything that we say has a level of kedushah - of inherent holiness. Indeed, this makes a great deal of sense. The primary physical characteristic that distinguishes man from animal is our power of speech. Only when we use this power in a positive way do we elevate ourselves. When we desecrate our speech, be it by speaking slander or with profanity or even not keeping our words, we take that spark of holiness that lies within each of us, and we make it chullin – profane. We take something beautiful and bright, and turn it into plainness and ugliness. It is for this reason that the Torah commands us to think about what we say and then follow through on our commitments. Only in this way can we ensure that our words retain the kedushah that God instilled within us.
As parents, we strive to raise our children with consistency. Common sense tell us, “Don’t make a threat if you’re aren’t going to carry it out.” If you do, your children know that you aren’t serious, and you’ll lose your ability to discipline. Have you ever been driving your car as your children scream at each other in the back, and turned around [while driving] and said, “If you kids don’t stop fighting, I’m going to stop this car right now?” You’re not going to do it – so don’t say it.
As our children grow older, these issues become even more serious. Teenagers find inconsistency and hypocrisy particularly frustrating. Time and time again they’d say, “I don’t care what crazy rules the school makes. That doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is when the school makes rules and then doesn’t enforce them.” To kids, hypocrisy and duplicity are the worst possible crimes. If our children feel that we don’t keep the commitments we make to them, or they see us not keeping the promises that we make to others, we run the danger of having them tune out everything else that we say as well. That’s a terrible risk to take.