Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Ki Teitzei
“I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America.” This was one of the first pieces of text I was ever asked to memorize. I learned it when I was really young, long before I even knew what it meant. As an adult, I can recite this pledge and can debate its relativity and relevance in my daily life, but as a child, they were sounds strung together for which I received praise when recited correctly. Don’t get me wrong, I love my country and am blessed to live here, but I have a nagging dilemma with which I have to deal: how and when did the “string of sounds” become an overt vow of allegiance? Given the way in which the words of this pledge get mangled by many who really never paid attention to begin with, we really do have an obligation to think intentionally about what we affirm/pledge as we recite these words and teach the same to those who come after us.
No, this is not the beginning of a pro-American rally (though I would love to have this conversation with many who forget that the rights that they abuse in defaming this country and its leadership would not exist but for this country and its leadership – like them or not). As I read through this week’s Torah portion, among all of the sexual based transgressions, are small, almost innocuous, zingers of mitzvot (precepts). There are more mitzvot in this portion than any other, and their order is just so random. Stuck in the middle, almost as a casual afterthought, are three verses about vows. In chapter 23:22-24, we get an adjuration that vows must be kept, that one should not make vows one does not intend to keep, and that God frowns upon violating these precepts. In context, one can claim that they are specifically speaking to financial matters, but throughout the Torah, these statements about the seriousness of vows applies across the board.
My question is simple, why doesn’t the text just tell us not to make vows? We are forgetful people; if we just don’t make any vows then we have nothing to worry about, right? We spend so much time on Yom Kippur (and hopefully on a far more regular basis) atoning for broken vows. Why don’t the commands teach us, “Just say No?” That would be just too easy, and really antithetical to everything that we hold sacred.
We want to be able to make promises to each other and fulfill them. We want to be able to count on each other for more than the passing greeting. We do not want to be so afraid of failure that we do not engage. We all know people who have been burned in relationships, who then ruin future relationships waiting to be burned … unwilling to trust a potential sacred partner. Torah draws emphasis to the importance of vows simply by devoting these three verses to the same command … told three different ways. The repetition of Torah’s commands on vows that we find throughout the book reminds us that this notion of honoring commitments applies to every piece of our existence. Whether we are discussing the business of business, relationships, sacred choices, care for the Earth, or care for ourselves, we need to be intentional in making our sacred commitments … and even more intentional in fulfilling them. We cannot whimsically make promises … people count on our integrity. A vow is a vow … is a vow. To whomever we pledge our integrity, we need to remember that we have just engaged in a sacred relationship rooted in trust.
This brings me back to the Pledge of Allegiance. Every day that these words utter forth from our mouths, they are no different than the vows of love we make to our family. Torah gives us paradigms that help guide our choices and behaviors. While not religious men, the founding parents of this country intentionally looked to our traditions because it called on followers to pledge … make vows to uphold the dignity of each other’s beliefs.
So many folks ask why the ancient words are relevant in the real world. Well, I live in a country built on the sanctity of pledges and vows. I just wish folks paid more attention to what they said, as they recited those words: the political ugliness that fills our news and which recruits our unconditional support just would not happen. If there is a place in the world where we should celebrate each other’s faith, this country is it.
We are less than two months away from national and local elections. The rhetoric is already ramping up, and the attacks leave any form of decency in the dust. Torah teaches us that when we choose blessings, we choose life. When we choose to hurt others, it is as if we destroy the world. As Jews we are about to enter the holiest of season, we will find ourselves compelled to live in two worlds: a world focused on healing and at the same time, a world focused on destroying. It is time that faith set the example rather than serve as the compromised fodder.
Folks, let’s celebrate life, and each other. The vow we all learned, pledging allegiance to the sacred protections upon which this government roots, is and should be a vow we live to keep, grow, and secure for all of us, not just those to whom we want to include … and not just for those who coddle our vote.
Rabbi Marc A. Kline