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Why Keeping Your Word is So Important

August 18, 2021 | by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Don’t say anything you won’t keep, and keep anything you say. That is the basis for integrity.

Many people are casual with what comes out of their mouths. Consequently, promises are frequently made with no real intention of keeping them. “Let’s do lunch.” “I’ll give you a call.” “I will follow up with you soon.” “I will meet you there in five minutes.” “I’m on my way now.”

These seem like inconsequential comments, hardly meaningful promises. And yet, if we say things we don’t mean, that aren’t fully accurate or true, or that we don’t plan on following up on, what does it say about the value of our words in general?

It says in the book of Deuteronomy, "You must fulfill what has crossed your lips. The Talmud interprets the words, “your lips,” as referring to someone who makes a pledge to give charity, and determines that that pledge has a status that is similar to a vow that must be fulfilled. A person who made a promise or pledge to charity and reneges on it, or fails to fulfill it, has violated a Torah prohibition.

Many commentaries encourage us to understand this verse as not narrowly limited to commitments to charity, but as a general directive to be extremely careful to fulfill our promises, to keep our word, to be truthful and honest in what emerges from our lips.

I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.

Be careful with what comes out of your lips. Don’t say anything you won’t keep. And keep anything you say. Your word must be your bond. When it isn’t, when you fail to call, never follow up, keep me waiting or renege on your commitment, how am I supposed to trust you or believe you going forward?

Friedrich Nietzsche said it well: “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”

In his “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey writes: “Integrity includes, but goes beyond honesty. Honesty is … conforming our words to reality. Integrity is conforming reality to our words—in other words, keeping promises and fulfilling expectations. This requires an integrated character, a oneness, primarily with self but also with life.”

Is your word your bond? How do you want people to think of you? Are you waiting for the other person, or is everyone always waiting for you? If you said you will be somewhere at a certain time, that should not be treated like an idle statement—it is an implicit promise, a commitment. Showing up late, keeping someone waiting isn’t cute or quirky, it isn’t a bad habit or an idiosyncrasy, it is rude, insensitive, and ultimately means you were untruthful, unreliable. You broke a promise.

If you say you are going to call someone or do something, develop a system to remind yourself, schedule it, keep a to do list, set a reminder. Get it done. If you don’t, you aren’t absent minded or “well intentioned”; you have broken a promise, your word lacks value.

If you said you are going to do something, do it, not just for the other, but for yourself. Be trustworthy. Be reliable. Don’t say anything you don’t mean or plan to follow through on.

If we honor our words, we will be honorable and we will earn the honor of others.

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