There’s an ancient prayer in Judaism expressing regret over broken commitments known as Kol Nidrei. Both beautiful and haunting, this Aramaic chant is so memorable that the entire service held on the eve of Yom Kippur is actually called the Kol Nidrei Service. Synagogues often hire professional musicians to play it, and people are deeply moved by this powerful intonation. But many are surprised when they realize what Kol Nidrei means: “all vows.” The song we’re closing our eyes and swaying to is actually an ancient legal text that absolves worshippers from being held responsible for commitments they have failed to keep.
The word “vow” seems so formal, especially when it’s chanted on such an occasion. We don’t think about the biblical verbiage of vows or oaths as applying to us very often—it’s mostly reserved for giving testimony in court, signing a legal document, or getting married. But, in reality, we make commitments every day; and we break those commitments. We promise to do something which, at the time, seems totally doable. But as the deadline approaches and reality sets in, we realize that we should never have taken it on.
Our Stupid Commitments
We agree to take on a project because we know that it will look good to have done it. We find ourselves stuck in a romantic relationship we don’t know how to get out of. Sometimes we even feel trapped by promises we made to our parents or grandparents long after they’re no longer around to disappoint. Though usually spoken with good intention, our words can paint us into a corner.
When a friend of mine was in college, she met a fellow student, and they started forming a new friendship, bonding over all their similarities. It’s such a comfort when you’re in a strange new place and discover a kindred soul! At one point, this new friend revealed that he was a vegetarian, to which my friend excitedly responded, “Me too!” Only this wasn’t true. She freely ate meat whenever she wanted. Or more accurately, it wasn’t true yet. After this conversation, she felt compelled to make her words true—she made a commitment to stop eating meat, and she became a vegetarian.
Our words have power.
This story reminds me of one of my own hasty pronouncements. When I was 19 years old, I was in Jerusalem at the Western Wall when an Orthodox Jewish man approached and asked me if I would like to wrap tefillin. He asked how often I said the Shema. I responded, “Every day.” I don’t know why that was the answer I gave. It wasn’t true, but I knew that would make him happy. Feeling guilty, I began reciting the Shema more frequently in an effort to make good on my declaration.
These are lighthearted examples, but they illustrate a deeper truth: our words have power. And we’re all guilty of using them more casually than their weight merits.
What Scripture Says About Our Commitments
We’ve been overpromising and underdelivering for all of human history. In the biblical account of Jepthah, a judge who presided over Israel, we see an extreme example play out.
The Lord’s Spirit empowered Jephthah. He passed through Gilead and Manasseh and went to Mizpah in Gilead. From there he approached the Ammonites. Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, saying, “If you really do hand the Ammonites over to me, then whoever is the first to come through the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from fighting the Ammonites—he will belong to the Lord and I will offer him up as a burnt sacrifice.” Jephthah approached the Ammonites to fight with them, and the Lord handed them over to him. He defeated them from Aroer all the way to Minnith—twenty cities in all, even as far as Abel Keramim. He wiped them out! The Israelites humiliated the Ammonites. When Jephthah came home to Mizpah, there was his daughter hurrying out to meet him, dancing to the rhythm of tambourines. She was his only child; except for her he had no son or daughter. When he saw her, he ripped his clothes and said, “Oh no! My daughter! You have completely ruined me! You have brought me disaster! I made an oath to the Lord, and I cannot break it.” (Judges 11:29–35)
Jepthah’s story is strange and difficult for modern readers to understand, but he finds himself in a situation we are all familiar with (although hopefully not with such high stakes): getting in too deep and seeing no way out.
Ritual brought resolution and the power of the words was no longer binding.
The Torah gives specific instructions for what to do when we realize we’ve made a rash oath: we’re told to confess, bring the Lord a sin offering, and allow the priest to sacrifice it to atone for our sin (Leviticus 5:4–6). When an ancient Israelite watched as the sheep or lamb they brought was slaughtered by the priest in order to free them from the power their words held over them, they were faced with the weight of their words. There was catharsis—the payment for the debt was made. The ritual brought resolution and the power of the words was no longer binding. The sacrifice was valuable because it was costly. The Israelite walked away freed from the burden of keeping an unkeepable commitment, but he also walked away with a painful awareness of the power of words.
A Modern View of Broken Commitments
Sacrificing an animal because of a broken commitment—and a stupid commitment at that—seems extreme (and because we don’t have a sacrificial system like our ancestors, impossible). A broken promise isn’t good, but needing to atone for it seems absurd. We have a clash of values: the Bible puts much more weight and significance to the words we utter and the commitments we make than we do. Our casual view of the significance of our words could in and of itself be seen as a strategy to avoid the consequence—if we don’t see a problem, we don’t have to feel guilty.
An article from Medium, “How To Get Out Of A Bad Commitment … Without Feeling Guilty,” offers this formula: “What we need is a cover story. A plausible reason why we made the bad commitment frees us of negative self-talk and protects our image…. Framing it as the best decision given the information available provides that necessary cover story.”1 In other words, we retell the story of the past to justify breaking our commitment. The article goes on; “This technique works as well on ourselves as it does on others. We know when we’re stuck in a bad commitment. We just need an excuse to break it without admitting fault.”
It’s precisely because we are so casual with our words that we often find ourselves stuck in situations we shouldn’t have been in in the first place. To solve this, some refuse to make any promises at all, earning the “commitment-phobe” label. It’s not a terrible tactic. The author of Ecclesiastes says, “It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin” (5:5–6).
Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’
While teaching on a mountainside in northern Israel, Yeshua challenged the traditional Jewish views of vows. He said, “You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ But I say, do not make any vows! Do not say, ‘By heaven!’ because heaven is God’s throne. And do not say, ‘By the earth!’ because the earth is his footstool. And do not say, ‘By Jerusalem!’ for Jerusalem is the city of the great King. Do not even say, ‘By my head!’ for you can’t turn one hair white or black. Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33–37).
We should be faithful to follow through with what we’ve spoken, even if we don’t use the word “vow” or “oath,” put our hand on a sacred book, give a boy scout pledge, or pinky promise. As the famously outspoken Christian dissident (and victim) of the Nazi regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, explained, “Oaths are a sign that we live in a world of lies.”2 In other words, our fundamental problem isn’t breaking commitments, our problem is that we are people who can’t live up to our own aspirations. We’re incapable of being fully trustworthy.
The Power of Honesty
Do we keep a commitment by paying the personal cost for our over-eager “yes?” Do we break a commitment and pay the cost in social capital? What is the way forward?
Scriptures still serve as a relevant guide. Confession and sacrifice are still the two keys to making things right. The first step towards being more honest with others is to be more honest with ourselves about our own limitations and shortcomings. We should admit our failure to the person we have wronged. And we should confess to God for failing to be the faithful people He called us to be.
We intuitively know that rebuilding trust comes with a price.
But it’s not enough to just say, “Sorry.” We intuitively know that rebuilding trust comes with a price. That might mean sacrificing time and energy to restore a relationship or sacrificing personal priorities in order to follow through on a future commitment. It is by paradoxically humbling ourselves that we become trustworthy and dependable to those around us.
I take great comfort in knowing that unlike me, God keeps every commitment He makes. The entirety of the Bible is a story of God remaining faithful to an unfaithful people. Our very existence as a people is proof that God doesn’t break His word. He has kept His promises to us from generation to generation, and He will continue to—even when we don’t hold up our end.
- Barry Davret, “How To Get Out Of A Bad Commitment … Without Feeling Guilty,” Medium, July 14, 2017, How To Get Out Of A Bad Commitment… Without Feeling Guilty.
- Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2015), 70.