Fulfilling Commitments


When I was a child, my parents read fables to us at bedtime. I always loved the story of the Little Red Hen who, during a process of baking a loaf of bread, asked for help every step of the way, and at every juncture, no one wanted to help. But, alas, when the smell of freshly baked bread came wafting out of the Little Red Hen’s home, everyone wanted to eat it! The Little Red Hen couldn’t help but comment how everyone wanted to enjoy the bread but no one wanted to help do the work to make it.

In some ways, the Torah is also  like a book of fables — a series of  stories and anecdotes that seek to teach a deeper lesson. In this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the value of making a vow  and keeping said vow. A vow is binding. So much so, that in modern-day Israel and mainstream  culture, when making plans, it is common to someone attach the phrase “bli neder” (without commitment) to their commitment as a way of acknowledging the possibility there may be a circumstance that prevents them from following through.

This notion of follow-through and keeping a commitment is something we see in ritual as well.  While not true in every case, there  are plenty of ritual mitzvot that we perform that we only say the blessing for after we have done the action. For example: lighting Shabbat candles (or Chanukah candles for that matter), washing our hands before a meal, putting on a tallis.

All of these are examples of just how important commitment is to the fabric of a healthy community. If we make promises to others and fail to follow through, we develop a reputation that we are flaky or unreliable. People will start to question our sincerity and wonder if they can count on us.  Fundamentally, fulfilling vows and commitments to others is what helps to establish trust and connection.

Whether you are a traditionally or liberally observant (or even non-observant) Jew, the importance of living up to your commitments is part of what it means to be a mensch. But it is more than that. The rabbis teach us that a person has three names she goes by: the one her parents give her, the one others call her and the one she makes for herself. Through our personal actions we make a name for ourselves and develop a reputation by which other people know us.

May we all strive to be people who others can count on — in our most intimate relationships and in the communities in which we live. And, when we cannot deliver, may we be humble enough to recognize this before we make a commitment that we cannot follow through on.

Rabbi Jessy Dressin is the senior director for Jewish Learning and Life at the JCC of Greater Baltimore.


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