The weeks preceding the High Holy Days are known as Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe. It is a time marked by introspection and personal search — a moment of self-examination for all Jews. This season affords us the opportunity to look at our deeds. None of us is exempt from this scrutiny and soul-searching, and if we conduct this task in a forthright, serious fashion, we discover that our sins are numerous: We have misjudged, miscalculated, misconstrued, underestimated and blundered. We conclude, as did the author of Ecclesiastes (7:20): "Ki adam ein tza-dik ba-ah-retz ah-sher yah-ah-seh tov v-lo yeh-cheh-tah." (There is no person altogether righteous on earth who always does right and never sin.)
Of all sins, one sin simply slips past us because we do not intend to commit it. I am speaking of expressing a wish unaccompanied by any intention or effort to fulfill it. It is the sin of well-meaning, good-intentioned, high-spirited people who fail to live up to a commitment for a variety of perfectly legitimate, sound reasons:
*The friend who says "We must get together" and then never does.
*The couple whose sacred marriage vows have become empty pledges.
*The parent who means to have the heart-to-heart talk with a child but never has time.
*The telephone call one forgets to make to a shut-in.
*The unfulfilled plan to donate canned foods to the food bank.
*The concerned citizen who would like to help but does not because he thinks, "What difference can one person make?"
It is, indeed, difficult to take a solemn oath and then live up to it. A wish unaccompanied by intention or action to fulfill it is an insidious sin. Certainly, we do not intend our words to be hollow, to slip away unfulfilled. Our intentions are good. Yes, we do mean well!
Kee Tavo, the Torah reading for this Shabbat, emphasizes the importance of oaths and promises. And if you look to last week's Torah portion, Kee Tetze likewise articulates the sin of making a promise without intending to fulfill it (Deuteronomy 23:22). Our ancestors understood that the probability of fulfillment is a function of the amount of time lapsed from the moment of the promise. The longer we wait, the less likely the pledge will be fulfilled.
The Hebrew word for sin is chet. It is also the word used in archery for missing the mark. In the sin of inaction, we not only miss the mark, we never shoot the arrow.
Other analogies can be drawn between archery and the sin of inaction. For example, with practice, we get closer and closer to shooting arrows on the mark. Similarly, in life we can get better at living up to our pledges by disciplining ourselves to fulfill them rather than by putting them off. It really does not take much effort to fulfill a promise once this practice becomes a habit.
A parable told by the Dubner Maggid illustrates the strategy we often employ when we have missed the opportunity of fulfilling a pledge:
A student of a military academy, returning home after graduation, stopped at a village inn to rest his horses. In the barn he noticed numerous targets chalked on the wall of the barn, each with a bullet hole dead center. He inquired about the marksman with such extraordinary aim. A small, barefoot boy appeared to be the masterful marksman.
"How in the world did you learn such marksmanship?" inquired the military student.
"It's quite simple," replied the lad. "First I shoot at the wall and then I draw the targets."
The boy's system is quite simple: Cover for your inaction by making it look like you fulfilled the promise when it was made. Unfortunately, life does not work like that. We do not get credit for drawing the target after we release the arrow; we do not get credit for action long after inaction has made it unnecessary or too late to fulfill a mitzvah.
Living up to a promise may seem to be trivial, but it does make a difference to the individual to whom the pledge was made. As we think of the Days of Awe and the coming High Holy Days may we be mindful of the value of living up to our word.
As Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach, may we heed the words of this simple prayer: "God, save us from uttering empty words. When we make simple vows and promises, may we not put off performing them. May we fulfill our oaths when we commit ourselves in pledge and promise to family, friends and to God. Amen!"