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Parshat Mattot/Massei: Numbers 30:2-36:13; Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4.

Rabbi Mark Miller

Some of the laws in the Torah still guide our lives today: Think about eating matzah during Passover or fasting on Yom Kippur.

Many other laws from the Torah are no longer applicable: Think about all the specific rules for sacrifices, for example. And then there are certain laws that may feel quaint or like they represent a different era … old ways of doing things that might provide tremendous benefit if we paid a little more attention.

I recall watching Jerry Maguire, a movie in which Tom Cruise’s character trusts another person rather than requiring his signature on a contract. After being duped, Maguire expresses his dismay by saying, “I’m still sort of moved by your ‘My word is stronger than oak’ thing.”

In that moment, viewers realize that Maguire was naïve; after all, in this modern world of ours, who would take someone at his word? Who would risk a livelihood on a handshake?
This week’s Torah portion begins with these words:

“Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: ‘This is what the Eternal has commanded: If a householder makes a vow to the Eternal or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.”

In the world of Torah, words matter. Midrash teaches us that in the very beginning, it was God’s words (“Let there be light …”) that created the world. Speaking out loud has the capacity to do more than simply communicate; it has the capacity to build, to heal, to destroy.

Our Torah portion asks us to think before we speak, to use our words intentionally and to follow our words with actions. But we seem to live in a world where the opposite is true. Far worse than Maguire’s situation is the reality that public dialogue has gotten coarser and cruder.

Years ago, people started to realize that the internet was providing an opportunity to write things in a vast public forum that they may not have done without hiding behind a keyboard. But the internet was only the vanguard.

Whether online or in person, words have become cheap and the very nature of truth itself is under assault. How can we expect our friends, neighbors, co-workers, role models or leaders to live up to their words when we throw words around so recklessly?

In a few short months, we will arrive at our synagogues for Yom Kippur. The powerful statement of “Kol Nidre” has gotten Jews in trouble in the past when others have mistakenly taken it to mean that a Jew’s word does not matter. It seems to say that we simply nullify our vows when we don’t live up to them.

But we can only invoke “Kol Nidre” after trying our hardest to live up to our words. Only when we take our vows seriously can we can be forgiven for our failures.

Perhaps if we started to insist of ourselves and those around us that we “carry out all that crosses our lips” we might strengthen the foundation of what makes our relationships — and our society — successful.

Rabbi Mark Miller is senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township.