Shabbat Sermon - Vaeira 5768 January 5, 2008 Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum Theme-PROMISES
Shabbat shalom everyone,
I need your favor. Someone asked me to make a special blessing for the Washington Redskins… I told him that I can’t make any promises, but I’ll do my best. I am very careful about the promises I make, as you’ll soon understand why.
After a two hour lecture, one of my university professors would always ask us to summarize the session in one sentence, sometimes even in just one word to see if we captured the essence of the day’s lesson. Using the same approach for this week’s Torah portion of Vaeira, I will summarize it in one word. PROMISES. This week we speak about the promises between Pharaoh versus Moses.
According to Webster's dictionary, the definition of Promise is:
1. An oral or written agreement to do or not to do something; a vow.
Synonyms include assurance, engagement, word, contract, pledge, covenant or arrangement. When one makes a promise or gives one’s word, he, or she, puts his credibility, trust, reliability, integrity and honesty on the line. A promise has much more at stake than simply agreeing to something or making a suggestion.
Promises made and promises broken permeate people’s lives everyday. 2008, like most secular years, usually begins with people of all ages, religions, and nationalities making New Year Resolutions. Individual’s promise to be better people, improve their outlook, and maybe learn a new skill. Probably the number one resolution involves one’s well-being; eating healthier, weight control or exercising more. Gaining control over bad habits. People resolve to get organized, change attitude or attain higher goals. Each promise promises to make some sort of change for a new and improved model.
And right now, we are steeped in the middle of a political tangle wrought with candidates’ promises to end the war in Iraq, lower taxes, return power to smaller governments, provide better health insurance, etc. Voters will cast their ballots during the Presidential primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire and around the country, based on the integrity of a particular man, or woman’s word. Who will best deliver to the nation, their political platform, full of promises to the constituents? Who is the most believable?
Right here, at Congregation Kneseth Israel, we are also in the midst of our own elections for six Board of Trustee members. All of them have made certain promises to our community based on our KI mission and their own visions for our future. However, it is up to us to elect the people we feel best represent our own individual vision. No doubt this will be a hard decision because all of our highly qualified and dedicated candidates share a love of Judaism and the KI family.
We are also dealing with promises made during the Annapolis Peace Conference between Israel, the Palestinians and the US Brokers. What was promised? Land for peace? How many billions of dollars were just pledged in Paris to the Abbas government? What about Hamas’ promise to, G-d forbid, wipe the Jews of Israel off the map? President Bush leaves for Jerusalem this week and together, we pray that he promises to speak out against injustice and terrorism, safeguarding the future of Israel, the Jewish people and global peace.
Today, we will take a closer look at Biblical promises and what we can learn from them. In this weeks Torah portion, Va'eira, for instance, G-d instructs Moses and his brother Aaron to make an appointment to visit Pharaoh in the palace. G-d says: Here's the agenda. You tell Pharaoh to release all the children of Israel from their slavery, leave Egypt and return to Israel. Is there any irony that Israel is also referred to as the "Promised Land?" King Solomon, our wise Jewish King, writes in Ecclesiastic, "It is better for one not to vow at all, than for him to vow and then not fulfill."
Today, wise doctors and psychologists warn against making promises in relationships that people know they may be incapable to uphold. A relationship is built on trust and integrity. When a promise is broken, a person’s credibility becomes fodder for speculation and suspicion. A promise that is not fulfilled can leave a scar in a person’s heart.
However, not all promises are as dire in terms of the expected outcomes and consequences. Say, for example, you are trying to get your child or grandchild to eat his vegetables by promising a delicious dessert. That’s an easy one. However, here is an example of one with broader implications. Imagine, G-d forbid, a scenario where an innocent person is kidnapped. The kidnapper calls the hostage’s family using the life of the captured victim as blackmail. He says, "If you don't deliver one million dollars to me right away, I will kill your loved one." Unfortunately, this method is used by terrorists, threatening to blow up buildings or kill large groups of people if their demands are not met.
Some promises are urgent and made upon deathbeds, such as in Parsha Vayechi, which we read from just a few weeks ago. In Genesis 47:29, "And the time drew near that Israel must die; and he called his son Joseph, and said unto him: 'If now I have found favor in thy sight, put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me; bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt." Jacob, here referred to as Israel, makes his son Joseph promise, that upon his death, his body will be brought back to Israel for its final burial. Jacob insists, "Don't bury me in Egypt." This is very important to him.
Here’s another one. After Jacob dies, the sons fear that Joseph will now take revenge upon them for selling him into slavery. Joseph, however, promises that he will not seek revenge even though, as the second in command under Pharaoh, he certainly had the means and resources to do so. Joseph vows," I promise no harm to you. G-d sent me here, not you."
And, then of course, is the greatest promise of all, the covenant between G-d and Abraham, when G-d says, "I promise to make you and your descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven."
Let’s discuss some basic facts about promises.
1. A promise that goes in one ear and out the other can be very frustrating.
2. If you don't keep your promise, then it’s meaningless.
3. If you make a promise, stick to it.
4. People can get deeply hurt if the promise is broken.
5. According to Jewish values, it is a sin to deliberately inflict injury, physically or emotionally. A broken promise can cause such an injury to another person, and is therefore equivalent to sinning.
6. Changing one's mind can create insecurity, havoc and heartbreak.
7. A false promise gives false hope and is just another form of lying. The ninth commandment specifically forbids us from bearing false witness.
8. When someone reneges on a given promise, trust, reliability and integrity are compromised, and are often irreparable.
Why do we make promises? Why make a commitment that we may not be able to keep?
Promises can often be a quick and immediate fix, the band-aid approach as it’s called, to save a situation from further deterioration. A promise can lead a person into a situation where they don’t really want to be, but may be the lesser of two evils, in order to keep peace among people. As we know, Joseph, like his father, asked to be buried in Israel and not left behind in Egypt. His brothers promised him to fulfill his request. However, we read in Genesis 50:26, "So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old. And they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt." One commentary said that the children of Israel were punished and suffered in Egypt because Joseph’s brothers failed to fulfill their promise to Joseph. However, in Exodus 13:19, some 210 years later, that promise is fulfilled by Moses who carried Joseph’s bones with him.
Sometimes, a promise is simply a practical way to get a person off one's back. Look at Pharaoh’s reaction to every plague sent from G-d upon the Egyptians. Blood, lice, wild animals, boils. In every case he promises that if Moses can stop the plagues, he will release the Jewish people. "Let my people go, Pharaoh." "OK, stop the locust and you’ve got a deal." Then as soon as the plague was reversed, it was another promise broken, business as usual.
Pharaoh’s promises were ineffective because he had no real intention of keeping his word. As one of my kindergarten students commented,
"Rabbi, didn't Pharaoh understand you shouldn't break a promise. He was stupid!" Talk about a one sentence summary about the day’s lesson. Out of the mouth of babes!
Nevertheless, in Pharaoh’s case, his broken word to the Jewish people incurred G-d's wrath and for this he and the Egyptian nation were duly punished.
In a word, Pharaoh was "wishy-washy". He was "fickle." He is forever remembered as the leader of broken promises, a man of no honor or integrity. The Bible tells us that to have a hardened-heart, such as Pharaoh’s, can bring about one’s downfall, G-d forbid.
It is just as important, however, to remember that to err is human. Sometimes, we make mistakes, often unintentionally. We may have inadvertently promised something and simply forgotten about it. It could be an honest mistake that slipped one’s mind. We know it is also a Jewish value to give others the benefit of the doubt and to be positive about someone’s intention. Try leniency when someone has failed to uphold one’s word, whenever possible. We should always try to do the best we can when it come to promises. In conclusion, as the Talmud teaches us, "Wicked people promise much and perform nothing. Good people promise little and perform much." Shabbat shalom.