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Keeping Your Word

Keeping Your Word

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I run across the house as I hear the familiar ring of my cell phone. Unexpected calls excite me. I guess it’s the feeling of surprise. It is a surprise, indeed. The caller ID says that my cousin is on the line. I haven’t spoken to her in a while.

“Hi!” I say cheerfully. It was nice to hear her voice. She was very upbeat as we talked for a bit, catching up. Then, there was a pause.

“How come I never get your text messages anymore? I used to like getting them before Shabbat,” she said ever-so-sweetly.

The text messages she was talking about were the simple “Shabbat Shalom” I would text my good friends on Friday mornings. I hadn’t sent them for a while, thinking that, although a nice sentiment, no one would really miss them. I guess I was wrong.

In Judaism, if you do something every day, it could be considered as if you promised you’d keep up the habitPerhaps the reason for her missing my texts, I thought, was because I had been sending them every Friday for a long time. She had come to expect them. In a way, my consistent Friday text messages, due to their frequency, were a promise themselves that they would always be there.

I told her and myself that, now that I knew that my texts meant something to people, I would try and keep sending them. Now, she’s the first person I text on Fridays.

Although I never verbally promised anyone that I would always text them on Fridays, my cousin’s disappointment made me reflect on how important it is to keep my word, whether verbally expressed or otherwise. In Judaism, if you do something every day, it could be considered as if you promised you’d keep up the habit. This experience makes me think that the same might be true for doing something on a weekly basis.

One thing I don’t like to do is let people down. If they expect something of me, I like to follow through. For, as much as I love surprises, I haven’t forgotten how pleasurable it is to have my expectations met. Keeping my word is very important to me. I used to think that was a universal trait, but recently I’ve been disappointed when I discovered this was not true for everyone.

In my experience, I have noticed that it is a red flag when people voluntarily start a statement with “I promise,” when no one asked them to. It usually means that whatever follows those words will not come to fruition.

And yet, when someone tells me something, I believe them. If someone says “I’ll call you tomorrow,” I will anticipate the phone call. I will check my phone that day more than usual, making sure I don’t miss the call and disappoint the person.

If they do not call, I feel sad. I wonder why they would tell me they would call if they weren’t going to. If I didn’t expect them to call, their calling would just have been a highlight to my day.

What I learned from these experiences is that if we make a habit of talking instead of communicating, we decrease the value of our word.

When I discover that a person is all talk and no action, I stop listening and believing what they say. Why should I listen, when I know I might get hurt? In contrast, I always listen to people who I feel are reliable, because I trust them and feel close to them. They make me feel important. Like a bank account, the more promises kept, the more I trust that person. However, one big withdrawal from the trust account can ruin a relationship.

My mother likes to say, “Your word is your wand.” Words have meaning, whether or not we mean them. When we tell someone we will do something, we are creating expectations. Keeping our word builds trust. Trust gives us security. Security builds healthy and happy relationships.

In a world of 24/7 communication, most of which does not involve face-to-face interaction, it is easy to overlook the significance of our words. Words may be everywhere, but they are anything but cheap. If we make a habit of thinking before we speak, we will become more sensitive human beings.

In Jewish thought, keeping your word is important. In fact, Judaism is based on a verbal agreement between G‑d and the Jewish people. We are the people of the covenant. Furthermore, every word of Torah has a purpose.

Words may be everywhere, but they are anything but cheapOne lesson I learned about keeping my word was when I noticed how observant Jews spoke differently than the rest of my friends.

“I’ll be back from vacation, bli neder (without a promise), on Tuesday,” or “See you next week, G‑d willing,” they’d say.

At first I was perplexed by their statements. Why did they have to tell me that they weren’t promising me that something will happen? Why can’t they just follow through?

In reality, they almost always did. “Bli neder” and “G‑d willing” weren’t substitutions for actually intending to fulfill their words, but insurance in case their plans didn’t pan out the way they would have liked.

Life is unpredictable. You never know what will happen tomorrow. Only G‑d knows for sure. Being careful about our word does two important things. First, it reinforces the idea that what we say has meaning. Secondly, it acknowledges that G‑d runs the world.

When “bli neder” or “G‑d willing” are not practical, such as is the case in secular situations, the phrase “I plan to . . .” is a good alternative.

Judaism teaches that our mouths are holy vessels. That is why we must be careful how we use them. With words we create new realities. In fact, it is through words that G‑d created the world. G‑d said, “Let there be light,” and light existed. G‑d is reliable, and therefore, in order to get closer to Him, we must emulate that trait.

Words are so important, that if we make a verbal promise it becomes a moral obligation. We must then do everything in our power not to go back on our word.

A good way to remember the power of our word is to look at our anatomy. Your mouth has two gates: your teeth and your lips. G‑d wants to remind us how much weight our words carry, and that we should really think about what we are going to say before we say it, especially if we are promising something.

As a woman, I feel a special obligation to work on keeping my word, as well as how I speak and what I speak about. It is said that ten measures of speech were given to the world, and of those ten, nine were given to women. Women are relationship beings, and our mouths are the vessels through which we create and sustain relationships. Therefore, a huge part of becoming a better woman comes from refining one’s speech.

Furthermore, I have learned that it is okay to say “no” sometimes. When we try to please everyone, we often end up disappointing someone and, consequently, ourselves as well. If we know we can’t follow through on a promise, it is okay—in fact, it is kind—to say we can not do it. That way, when you do commit to something, you will do it because your heart will be in it.

If we can’t trust ourselves, than who can truly rely on us?Keeping promises to others is important. Meanwhile, we mustn’t forget about ourselves. We are the only person who is with us 24/7. If we can’t trust ourselves, than who can truly rely on us?

As Rosh Hashanah approaches and we start to make our Jewish New Year’s resolutions, let’s start our year off right by keeping the promises we make to ourselves. Let’s start with very small promises we know we can accomplish in a short amount of time. When we follow through on the smaller promises, we develop a pattern of consistency that will enable us to follow through on the bigger ones.

Keeping our promises to ourselves will empower us to change and to grow. It will also give us self-esteem, because we are building our character. We are proving to ourselves that what we say has value, that we are important enough to be a priority to us. I believe that if we start with keeping our word to ourselves, it will become a habit for us to keep our word with other people and with G‑d.

G‑d willing, we will all be able to sanctify the world by keeping our word, making life a little more dependable.

Samantha Barnett is a writer. She lives in Los Angeles, California.
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Samantha Barnett Los Angeles, CA September 24, 2014

The Talmud. The section that speaks about promises is called Nedarim. Reply

Rachael September 22, 2014

Citation I really love this article, but like many others on this website, I would love if some of the statements were cited. For example, what is the source of the following quote: "In Judaism, if you do something every day, it could be considered as if you promised you’d keep up the habit"? From where is this statement derived? Reply

Anonymous bklyn, NY September 21, 2011

Keeping Our Word Samantha, I absolutely love this article. It resonated with me. I was raised to keep my word. To me it is crucially basic. A problem I have is that when someone close to me consistently breaks their word - I have a problem with that. And yet there is really nothing I can do to change someone else's behavior. Just as I was raised to keep my word, this other person in my life was raised the opposite way. it is painful. your article is good. it did not solve my problem but at least it made me feel I am normal for feeling betrayed.
Samantha, I always try to "under-promise and over-deliver," as Rabbi Gershon Schusterman wrote in the N'shei Chabad Newsletter. Or as the Pirkei Avos says, "Emor me'at v'aseh harbeh." That way I don't let others down. I would not want to make people feel the way I feel so often.
Thank you again for a beautifully written, thoughtful and wise article. Reply

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