A reflection on the weekly Torah portion.
If a man takes a vow or an oath upon himself,” reads Numbers 30:3, at the start of last week’s Torah reading, “he shall not break his word, but all that comes from his mouth he shall do.”
Broken oaths are not quite lies. A lie is a declaration against your beliefs. “From false things shall you distance yourself,” reads Exodus 23:7, enjoining all forms of insincerity. Kant thought that lying is a kind of coercion. I’d add that lying offends the practice of speech itself. The liar impregnates words, by nature meant to fit the world, with an alien purpose—the intentions of the speaker against the truth.
Broken vows are not lies, but they, too, degrade speech. Rashi, the medieval French exegete, suggests that the Hebrew word yachel, which I translated in the Torah reading above as “break,” is more precisely interpreted as “profane.” The relevant root has a few senses, all meant to contrast the object of the verb with a holy thing. The tone of Numbers 30:3, then, implies that breaking a vow is sacrilege—the Torah’s injunction against violating your word is more precise, and legally more severe, than its injunction against lying. A vow is a holy thing. Why? One possibility is that doing things with words is the only way man can, following in the ways of God, create something from nothing—in the case of a promise, by generating a new moral reality (in Judaism, also a legal reality).
The Torah’s first recorded speech is practical. The Almighty uttered the world out of a void. His intention and performance are one and the same. Before we encounter the Lord as “Guardian of truth, forever” (Psalms 146), we learn that He “commands the morning” (Job 38). In Genesis 2, “the Lord forms man from the dust of the earth, and breathes into his nostrils the spirit of life, and man became a living being.” The ancient Aramaic translator of the Bible, Onkelos, has the end of the verse, “and in man resided the spirit of speech.” God wrought the universe and then entrusted it to man with the principle that is (borrowing a phrase from Aristotle) man’s first actuality. Man can speak and grant Heaven a warrant against future choices. So to promise to do, and then to do otherwise, is to pervert the Lord’s first and essential gift.
The Bible’s injunction against false oaths is just the sternest part of an ethic of speaking. Before telling men to keep their oaths, King Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 5, “be not quick to utter words before the Lord, for the Lord is in Heaven, and you are on Earth—therefore, let your words be few. For a dream comes from much discussion; and foolish things from much speech.”
The thesis of Ecclesiastes is that one form of life—to fear the Lord and to obey His instruction—is the whole of man, and all isolated wisdom and beauty and joy are futile. Wisdom and beauty and joy are ambitious pretenders for self-sufficient purpose, so cutting them down is a stiff but highly salutary lesson. In a world that will not stop talking, the ubiquity of speech can obscure the meaning—that is, the uniqueness and the importance—of every word. It seems we could sooner stop breathing than stop speaking.
Not so. Speech is either redeemed or vain. A word fitly spoken is like a golden apple in silver frames. So, too, a kept promise is imitatio Dei; a broken one is cosmic treachery.
Cole S. Aronson studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Judean hills.