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Yom Kippur and the Importance of Keeping Your Word

September 12, 2021 | by Emuna Braverman

Living in a society where talk is cheap, we need to ensure that our words mean something.

The other day one of my granddaughters spent over three hours staring out the window, interrupted only by periodic walks to her mother to complain. She had made plans with a friend and the friend said she would be there any minute.

So my granddaughter waited and waited and waited. She couldn’t really call another friend and it was very hard to get involved in any project because her friend was coming over “any minute.” Time seems fluid in this friend’s family and any minute was actually 3.5 hours!

Today I witnessed a variation on this theme. We went to drop something off at a different child’s home and arrived to find her granddaughter pacing the front yard, waiting for a friend to come over. After a significant passage of time, the friend's mother finally called to check up on her.

"She's not here yet."

“Oh,” the friend’s mother said. “My husband is home and I guess he didn’t get the message clearly. I thought she was already at your house.” Misunderstandings and miscommunications can happen but my granddaughter was left waiting and waiting…

I recalled both of these stories as I contemplated the upcoming holiday of Yom Kippur. The first thing we do on this solemn day is recite Kol Nidrei and nullify our vows. We recognize we may have unintentionally misspoken; we may have made commitments we were able to keep, promises that we were forced to break, vows we should never have uttered. And we reflect on the importance of our words, what they mean to us and to others.

While the commitment to a playdate with a 10-year-old or 8-year-old certainly doesn’t fall into the category of a vow that requires nullification of Yom Kippur, it's a reflection of how carelessness in language can be hurtful to others, even without intending to, even if the words themselves are not cruel.

Particularly with children who have a limited concept of time and even more limited patience for waiting, we need to very clear, very precise and we need to think in advance. When will we realistically be ready? If we are delayed, perhaps we should let them know? Will our husband understand that these instructions are to be carried out right away?

Our word has to mean something – in order for people to trust us and because there are people at the other end who are impacted by our vague promises and commitments.

It is painful to watch the disappointment in children when the adults around them (particularly their parents, but really anyone) don’t keep their word. They feel hurt and betrayed.

Yom Kippur reminds us of the power of words and how they signal commitment, how they help define our character.

And we should understand this. Because we feel the same when our friends or acquaintances are cavalier about our time or value. If someone doesn’t want to “do lunch”, then just don’t offer. If you don’t want to get together the next time you come to New York (getting a little personal here!), then don’t say you’ll be in touch. And if you’re delayed (avoidably or not), call and explain. Give me a chance to make other plans in the interim or to use the now available time well.

Sometimes we are just plain inconsiderate (no excuses). Sometimes circumstances arise that are beyond our control (all circumstances are actually beyond our control!). Sometimes we are just trying to fit too much in. But whatever the cause, we should at least notify the other party that we are late and we should make every effort to be on time in the future. Because it was a commitment. Because we gave our word.

We live in a society where talk is cheap, where words are thrown about with no meaning or intent behind them. Yom Kippur reminds us of the power of words and how they signal commitment, how they help define our character.

We may not have taken actual oaths that require nullification but I’m sure many of us have made commitments we haven’t honored, used our words cavalierly, caused unintentional pain. And for that we should do teshuvah, feel regret and change.

Yom Kippur is a reminder that a commitment should mean something and we should therefore think hard before we make one, even if it’s to take everyone to Disneyland, maybe particularly if it’s to take everyone to Disneyland!

A little thought before we speak can avoid a lot of pain and regrets – and make repentance on Yom Kippur a whole lot easier!

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