If you are looking for a Biblical role model, maybe avoid Jephthah in the Book of Judges.
Seeking victory in battle against the Ammonites with God’s help, he decided to make a vow. If God gave him victory, whoever came out to meet him on his return home would be sacrificed as a burnt offering. Returning victorious, it was his daughter – his only child – who met him.
Jephthah blames his daughter, saying it is her fault and she has brought grief to him by being the first to greet him. She is given two months, but Jephthah ends up carrying through his vow.
Jephthah was reckless, selfish and ultimately murdered his own daughter. But it all started with a vow. Jephthah failed to realise the enormous power of words and that making a promise is not something to do lightly.
Judaism has long encouraged us to avoid making vows, and of course we have a significant ceremony to renounce vows and promises at Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur.
When we make a promise, we don’t always understand what we are committing ourselves to.
Our promises may not have murderous consequences, but they can still when we make them without really thinking cause great pain to ourselves and others.
We only need to look around us in the world to see the damage done by rash promises, whether they tear down trust in our political systems when they are not seen to be kept or set fear upon vulnerable people in the expectation that they might.
Our words are powerful and we must deploy them with the greatest of care. There is only one vow I think of making after reading Jephthah’s tale – I vow not to make vows.
Better to promise little and simply do our best for the world around us.
- Laura Janner-Klausner is senior rabbi to Reform Judaism