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The opening theme of this week's double parsha/Torah reading, concerns itself with the laws of vows and verbal commitments. The Torah nevertheless introduces this subject by stating that these laws and values were transmitted to the heads of the tribes of Israel. Since these laws are binding upon the entire Jewish people and are clearly discussed and explained in the Talmud in the tractate of Nedarim, the question obviously is raised as to why the emphasis was placed on teaching these laws to the leaders of the tribes of Israel.

Since they are binding on all Jews then why the special notation regarding the heads of the tribes of Israel? Over the centuries, the great commentators to the Torah have offered varied explanations and different comments regarding this matter. In our time when democratic elections take place on a regular basis and politicians are constantly running for office, I believe that we can understand a special relevance to Moshe’s first emphasizing these laws to the leaders of the tribes of Israel.
Leaders have a tendency to speak in exaggerated terms and make exorbitant promises. We are witness to the famous excuse “that one sees when in office what one did not see when campaigning for that office.” Thus the intelligent citizen will always inject a note of skepticism regarding campaign promises, party platforms or policy pledges.
The Torah views the spoken word as being sacrosanct. “What comes forth from one's mouth should be honored and observed and implemented.” Since the tendency of leaders is somehow to be loose with promises, the Torah makes a special point of addressing these laws regarding verbal commitments to the leaders of the tribes of Israel.
In general, the Torah always places special emphasis and importance on the spoken word. “Life and death are dependent upon the spoken word of the tongue.” In the Talmud we are taught which verbal commitments are legally binding and which are to be taken only as “words” without legal consequence. Nevertheless the Talmud emphasizes that mere “words” even if not legally binding are of moral importance.
In the times of the Talmud, one could publicly issue a harsh criticism of someone who did not stand by his or her word even if that verbal commitment was not legally actionable or enforceable. The highest compliment even in today's sometimes cutthroat economic world is that “so and so is a person of his or her word.”
Exaggerations abound, negotiating positions are ploys and not to be taken seriously and yet even when we realize this, we are taken aback and disappointed when seeming commitments and spoken promises are ignored. There is an inner voice within us that demands that what we say should be what we mean and should be carried out effectively in behavior and action. This is true for all of us no matter what our circumstances may be. But it is doubly true for leaders and public figures whose words are taken seriously by their listeners and can have devastating effects when not honored or fulfilled. This is an important lesson for our current times and society.
Shabbat shalom
Rabbi Berel Wein

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