(a dvar torah for ma‘ariv, Shabbat parashat Ki-Teitzei’)
The month of אלול is quickly passing by.
ראש השנה and יום כפור are coming closer.
And many people
around this time of year
are beginning to think aboutresolutions
for the new year 5769.
We look back at this year,
at all the mistakes we've made,
all the ways we've hurt others
and hurt ourselves;
all the ways that we haven't lived up to our obligations —
and very understandably,
start to make promises.
We make promises to ourselves
to our friends, to our families, to God...
There are 74 מצוות in כי־תצא, this week's פרשה
and one of them isthe obligation to keep your word.
As the תורה says,
כִּי תִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַ-י' אֱ-ֹהֶיךָ, לֹא תְאַחֵר לְשַׁלְּמוֹ
If you make a vow to God,
don't be late in paying up —
כִּי דָרֹשׁ יִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ י' אֱ-ֹהֶיךָ מֵעִמָּךְ, וְהָיָה בְךָ חֵטְא
for God will require it of you,
and you will be guilty of a transgression.
וְכִי תֶחְדַּל לִנְדֹּר, לֹא יִהְיֶה בְךָ חֵטְא
But if you don't make a vow in the first place,
you won't be guilty of anything
מוֹצָא שְׂפָתֶיךָ תִּשְׁמֹר וְעָשִׂיתָ
Observe and perform
that which comes out of your lips.
Now, while this מצוה is primarily concerned
with the prompt fulfillment
of vows made to God,
it can teach us something
about everything that comes out of our mouths —
all the promises, pledges, and guarantees
that we make to others
and to ourselves.
Some people are energized by their vows —
they make a decision
and it's the force of their promise
that holds them to it.
Many of us, on the other hand,
are paralyzed by promises.
Words are broken.
And once we take that first step
across the line we drew for ourselves,
there's no going back;
no way to get back on the track towards improvement.
are powerful things.
Words build worlds.
With 10 declarations, the משנה says,
God created the universe.
And as we say multiple times
in the High Holiday liturgy,
ראש השנה is the birthday of the world.
But according to רבי אליעזר
who is quoted in a few different מדרשים,
the first day of creation was כ"ה אלול —
which makes ראש השנה the Sixth
day of Creation
the birthday not of יהי אור, “let there be light” — but of the human race
At the beginning of the תורה,
when God breathes life into Humanity,
and we become נפש חיה, a living soul,
the traditional Aramaic translation of אונקלוס
renders that phrase
רוּחַ מְמַלְּלָא —a speaking spirit.
Speech is what makes us human.
The words we say create worlds.
Our vows and resolutions define reality.
And so the תורה tells us —
if you make a vow and break it,
you've committed a transgression.
So it's better not to make it in the first place.
Words are weighty things.
And as we get closer to ראש השנה,
and the pressure to change, to grow, to improve ourselves
gets stronger and stronger,
[...] let me suggest,
in the words of the Nike advertising campaign,Just Do It.
So don't swear to high heaven that you're “never going to do it again”
and don't promise yourself perfection.Just take a single step in the direction you want to go.
And then take another.
The universe wasn't created in a single day,
and there are 18 days from now until ראש השנה,
and then 10 more until יום כפור,
and then 344 days from יום כפור until next ראש השנה.
If we just take one small step at a time,
with no illusions, and no assumptions,
who knows how far we can reach by then.