Rabbi's Message, Rabbi Alvin Kass, June 2016

Rabbi Alvin Kass
Chief Chaplain of the NYPD


One of the saddest and most tragic episodes in all of Biblical literature involved Jeptha, the courageous warrior and judge who led the Israelites to victory against the children of Ammon. In his zeal to secure divine help on the battlefield, Jeptha made a promise to God, "If Thou wilt indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, it shall be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering."

When Jeptha returned in triumph from his exploits against Ammon, he very much regretted that rash and impulsive vow since the first who came to greet him out of the doors of his house was his daughter, his only child. He said to her, "Alas, my daughter, thou hast brought me low, and thou art become my troubler; for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back." According to the Biblical commentator David Kimchi, Jeptha could not give his daughter as a burnt offering because of Judaism's prohibition again human sacrifice. Instead Jeptha "made a house for her and brought her into it, and she was there separated from mankind and from the ways of the world".

Thus, in order to keep his word, Jeptha imposed upon his daughter a life of isolation and deprivation. Was Jeptha right to keep his promise to God? Obviously, everyone would have been much better off if Jeptha had never made the vow at all; but once he had done so, was he morally right in insisting he had to follow through and make good on his commitment no matter how much misery and unhappiness that promise caused his daughter.

Judaism certainly endorses the serious obligation that devolves upon a human being to honor his word. As the sages stated, "Let thy yea be yea, and thy nay be nay. He who changes his word commits as heavy a sin as he who worships idols, and he who utters an untruth is excluded from the Divine Presence." Nevertheless the Rabbis also recognized that people make promises in time of danger, stress, or under the impulse of the moment which if carried through, would generate havoc or disaster. For that reason, the halacha developed procedures for annulling and canceling out thoughtless or impossible vows. Indeed, the principal assumption which underlies the Kol Nidre prayer, the climax of the High Holy Day liturgy, is the belief that forgiveness is necessary and possible even in the sensitive realm of unfulfilled promises and vows.

It is evident that our Tradition castigated Jeptha for not having his vows annulled. The Sages say that Phineas, the High Priest, could have given him absolution, but refrained from doing so for reasons of vanity and jealousy. Phineas declared, "I, the High Priest, should go to that ignoramus! Let him come to me". Jeptha, in turn, asserted, "I, the Prince of the Land, should humiliate myself before one of my subjects." Both Phineas and Jeptha were severely punished for their attitudes. Phineas ceased to receive direct revelation from God while Jeptha died a terrible death.

Keeping your promise is obviously a most praiseworthy attribute. Social stability requires that all people, not only judges, generals, and Presidents be expected to fulfill their commitments. However, if the promise is senseless, foolish, mischievous, immoral, and destructive, it should be broken. It's better to suffer the embarrassment and humiliation of breaking your word than to compound problems by trying to live up to a horrible promise that should never have been made in the first place. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, "A foolish consistency is a hobgoblin of little minds."

There is something frightening about a promise even one involving no more than a ceremonial error that acquires a political, indeed, geopolitical life of its own, persuading even the most powerful leaders that they are helpless hostages of history. If this is the dominant mindset, one shudders to think how in the thermonuclear age, a rash and foolish commitment by a world leader which he feels compelled to uphold as a matter of honor and principle, would bring about the end of human civilization. There are historians who claim that World War I began as an accident because European heads of state promulgated a series of bellicose ultimatums from which they felt they could not back away. One incident led to another and a worldwide conflagration erupted which exceeded in savagery every other military engagement of modern times. Before it was all over, 65,000,000 men had fought for longer or shorter periods under the flags of the various participants. Moreover, the number of civilians killed in air raids, massacres, famines, and epidemics exceeded the number of soldiers killed in battle. All this because of impulsive promises! It is a gross understatement to declare that thermonuclear war would be infinitely worse.

The time has come to recognize that more important than consistency, saving face, or keeping your word is doing what's right. That is true whether you are the head of a family or the head of a state. Dante said it best when he wrote:

"Be strong To keep your vow yet be not perverse As Jeptha once blindly to execute a rash resolve. Better a man should say I have done wrong, Than keeping an ill vow, he should do worse."

Happy Summer!

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