One of my father’s closest students offered in 1965 to give me a ride on his motorcycle. “You have to ask your mother,” said my father. “But Ma never lets me do anything!” I complained. Jokingly, my father said, “So, I’ll get you a motorcycle when you are sixteen!” I was thrilled, but my father’s face turned white. “What happened?” I asked him. “I just made a promise that I have to keep!”
Believe me when I tell you that I remembered that promise. I fully intended to collect when I would be sixteen. I never mentioned his promise to him, but my father did not forget!
When I turned sixteen, he came to me and said, “I intend to keep my promise. Find a motorcycle I can afford.” I laughed, “Does that mean I have to find a model motorcycle?” “No,” he responded, “I led you to believe that I would buy a real motorcycle, so I must.” “What will Ma say?”
“You’ll have to work it out with her.”
Suffice it to say that he bought a used motorcycle for me. I never rode that one.
“If you refrain from vowing, there will be no sin in you. You shall observe and carry out what emerges from your lips, just as you vowed a voluntary gift to God, your Lord, whatever you spoke with your mouth.” (Deuteronomy 23:23-24) You must fulfill what was uttered and do what was vowed. (Rambam, Hilchot Nedarim – The Laws of Vows)
My poor father suffered for years over his inadvertent promise. I wish I was as careful with my words!
On the morning before Rosh Hashana we will perform Hatarat Nedarim, Release From Our Vows. We begin Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei, again addressing vows made, yet to be kept. Perhaps it’s worthwhile to remember my father’s burden of a promise, while we consider the past year and reflect on what we must do to repair our relationship with God.
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