Let me ask you this: if you orally agreed to buy a piece of property, or a car or to have someone do work for you, what is that agreement worth? Well in most circles in our world, not very much without a signed contract. What has become of the phrase, “Your word is your bond”?
Today’s Torah portion begins with vows—how important it is to do what you say you will do. And later it tells of the pledge made by the tribes of Reuven, Gad and the ½ tribe of Menashe to do their share in helping the other tribes conquer the land even though their land was to be far from the center of the battles. So yes, the Torah takes the spoken word very seriously.
Do you know the special way in which deals are settled in the diamond industry? Rabbi Jack Reimer (Matot65) points out that the answer goes back all the way to the opening words of our parsha (Num. 30:3): “If a person makes a vow to Gd, or if he takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his word…he shall do all that he says.”
This commandment to keep your word and never to deny what you have promised is crucial to the diamond industry. The custom in the industry is that when you make a deal you shake hands on it and you say: mazel and bracha, which means, “May you have good luck and much blessing in this deal.” You don’t need to sign a promissory note; you don’t need to have witnesses. If you have shaken hands on a deal and said mazel and bracha, then the deal is binding.
Let me share with you just one illustration from the diamond industry that appeared in Present Tense magazine a few years ago by Murray Shumach. He writes:
There was a man named David Schamroth who was a diamond broker in New York City. Some years ago Mr. Schamroth had a heart attack. He was taken to the hospital and his wife and children rushed there to be with him. When they saw how pale and weak he looked they asked him many questions. But he brushed aside all their anxious questions. He had something more urgent to say that he had to tell them 1st.
In a husky voice, he told them that the next morning, as soon as the bank opened, they must go there. Since his wife was a co-signer on the vault that he had there, she could get them into the safe deposit box. In this box, Mr. Schamroth told his daughter, there were many diamonds that were not his. He was holding them on consignment from a dealer. The diamonds had to be returned to the dealer first thing in the morning, for he had promised to give them back that day. He gave his daughters the name and address of the dealer and made them promise that they would do what he asked them to do.
The next morning, the mother and the daughters were at the bank when it opened. After signing in, they opened the safe deposit box, removed the diamonds and delivered them to the dealer AND ONLY THEN did they go to the hospital. When they came to his bed, Mr. Schamroth’s 1st question was whether the diamonds had been returned to the dealer, as he had asked. They assured him that they had been returned. Then he could relax.
This is the 1st part of the story. The 2nd part of the story is even more remarkable.
Some years later, Mr. Schamroth died of a 2nd heart attack. And during the shivah, 2 remarkable things happened. 2 men each came to pay a shivah call, each on a separate day, but both with the same story. They each told the family that Mr. Schamroth had recently brokered the sale of some diamonds for them, but that they had not yet had a chance to pay him his broker’s commission. And so they wanted to reassure the family that they would send them the checks that were due to them within the week.
These 2 men did not have to admit that they owed Mr. Schamroth money. There were no records. The transactions were conducted, like almost everything else on 47th Street—with a handshake and a mazel and bracha. But just as his word was sacred to David Schamroth, it was sacred to these men too.
The article mentions that Mr. Schamroth was not particularly observant as many of the diamond merchants on 47th Street are. Nevertheless, he took the opening words of today’s parsha very seriously as did these 2 men who paid the family what they owed him after shiva. For all 3 of them, to break their word would have been a sacrilege. Jews just don’t do that at least not in the diamond industry.
And this has been the case throughout history. 2 examples from American history: The “Triangular Trade” routes from Colonial America to the Caribbean to Europe and the expansion of the clothing industry in the 19th century only came about because Jewish manufacturers and Jewish merchants trusted each other and goods were shipped on consignment trusting that they would get paid from their fellow Jew.
In the Talmud (Bava Metzia 44a) there’s a fascinating curse: the “mishepara curse.” Mi shepara mey-anshey dor hamabul umidor hahaflaga (May He who exacted punishment upon the generation of the flood and the generation of the Tower of Babel exact punishment upon he who does not stand by his word).
It’s hard to underestimate the awesome power of these words. Here you have a curse that goes back thousands of years. Just as what the generation of the flood did was so bad that in punishment for it the world was destroyed…just as what the generation that built the Tower of Babel did was so bad and so serious that the peoples of the world were scattered forever…so bad and so serious is the sin of one who breaks his word! Who could hear that curse and not be frightened? Who could know about that curse and break his word?
It’s been a while since we recited Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur asking Gd to release us from our unkept promises to Him. Now that we’re in the last quarter of the Jewish year—just a couple of months—perhaps it’s time for an inventory to see how we’re doing with our promises to Gd, to each other and to ourselves this year, and see if we can catch up somewhat.
Did we promise to spend more time with each other, or not to raise our voices in anger, or to spend time learning Torah, or to loose 10 pounds? It’s not too late. How about the parent who promised to come to shul every Shabbos if her son gets into a good university or the husband who promised not to take a sip of alcohol for 6 months if his wife recovers from surgery?
I suspect some of us don’t take our promises too seriously. There’s the story about a man from Tel Aviv who drives to Jerusalem for an important business meeting but can’t find a parking spot. As the time for the meeting draws closer, he begins to panic and so he lifts his head toward heavens and says, “Dear Gd, I must be on time for this meeting. If you allow me to find a parking spot now, I promise I will keep kosher and go to shul on Shabbat.” Just then miraculously someone pulls out of a parking spot just in front of him. Once more he lifts his head towards heaven and says, “Never mind Gd; I found one!” It’s so easy for many of us to dismiss our vows.
One of the early Chasidic masters, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch of Vadislov, commented on the redundancy of the verse (Num. 30:3): “He shall not break his word; he shall do all that he says.” He explained that the last part of the verse comes as a reminder that one should execute one’s word with the same fervor with which it was made:
Often one makes an oath to Gd with much emotion, but when it comes time to fulfill that vow, often it is performed with much unwillingness. And hence the Torah comes to teach us that both vow and fulfillment should be done with equal conviction.
In other words, our promises should be fulfilled with the same zeal as they were pronounced.
And so, let’s take this passage to heart and do an inventory now and see how we’ve done on our promises this year to Gd, to each other and to ourselves. In the couple of months left till Yom Kippur, let’s see if we can play catch up so that when we hear Kol Nidre again, it won’t be with a heavy heart. Amen!