It seems rhetorical to ask, why should we keep our promises? We have all experienced the disappointment of a broken promise. Yet, when most would agree that it is wrong to rescind an offer of good will, why does it still happen? Few among us can say that we’ve never gone back on our word. We live in a culture that seems to accept a broken oath. Politicians get away with it so regularly we are surprised when they keep a promise!
With so many uncommitted words passed between us, at some point we begin to respond lackadaisically not only to the commitments that others break, but also to those we make. Modern ethics accepts that keeping a promise is a matter of moral integrity; keeping our word is good for us, our collective well being, and lays the groundwork for a more just and well-functioning society.
From a kabbalistic point of view, when we do not keep a promise, it creates negativity. When we make a vow, whether to ourselves or to another person, we receive all the energy we need to meet that goal. If we don’t follow through, that energy becomes stagnant and can cause harm.
In the story Matot, Moses states, “If a man makes a vow to God or swears an oath, he must not permit his word to remain unfulfilled. He shall do whatever has come forth from his mouth.” His instructions send a very clear message about what is wrong and what is right.
In backing away from an oath or agreement we’ve made, we are only hurting ourselves. Wellness expert, Michelle Gielan, elaborates on the impact of a broken promise, “Not keeping a promise is the same as disrespecting yourself. Ultimately, it can harm our self-image, self-esteem, and our life.” We would all like to think of ourselves as faithful friends, responsible parents and partners, and upstanding citizens. The failure to keep one’s word, no matter how seemingly insignificant, can slowly chip away the confidence we have in ourselves, and how we see ourselves. One failed commitment makes the next one feel a little less important, and so on until we are standing in a pile of broken promises.
Failure to follow through not only causes us to lose faith in ourselves, but when those around us see us break our promises, they learn that we are not trustworthy. This can alienate us from those we love and admire and more deeply disconnect us from the Creator. Furthermore, it can be a precarious place to find ourselves, especially as role models or mentors. Herbert Schlesinger, author of Promises, Oaths, and Vows, explains that promise keeping “is one of the defining acts of maturity in moral behavior.” Whether we realize it or not, those around us learn from our actions. Our behavior sets a precedent for what is acceptable and what has value.
Before making a commitment, we may do well to ask ourselves why we are making a promise in the first place. Is it in order to get something in return? Is it out of good will? Why not surprise someone with an act of kindness instead of making a promise you may not be able to keep?
The Hebrew proverb, “Promise little and do much,” reveals great kabbalistic wisdom. If you find that you have been sliding in your commitments, try to only make promises you know you can keep. Then remain diligent in following through. Small shifts towards acting more responsibly bring us closer to the Creator.