We make promises all the time. We promise to meet someone for lunch. To pick up milk on the way home. To do our jobs. We make promises to our children, our friends, our lovers, our coworkers. We make promises to ourselves and to God. And all too often, we break them.
Making a promise creates a boundary, a limitation. If I promise to do something then I am expected to do it; I can’t go hiking if I’ve promised to sit with a sick friend. My promise limits me until I am released by fulfilling it.
And this is where we run into problems with our promises. The idea of accountability seems to have gone by the wayside. Or maybe it’s never been the case, maybe humans have always taken their promises too lightly. We break a lunch date, forget the milk, chat with friends instead of working. We apologize, perhaps sincerely and perhaps secretly happy that we didn’t have to keep the promise.
Institutions make promises too. Sometimes these promises are made freely, sometimes under duress. Our government has promised to reunite immigrant children with their parents, but only after having been forced to correct the wrong done by separating families when they entered the United States. So far, they have not met the requirement.
Israel promised to allow women to pray freely at the Western Wall, and yet this week, as they have done every month when the Women of the Wall gather, police stood by passively while ultra-Orthodox hooligans threw trash at the women, and set a prayer book on fire. And then laughed at a woman when she was badly burned picking it up off the ground.
We are nearing the end of a period known as The Three Weeks, which culminates in Tisha B’Av, the day that Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The rabbis of the Talmud blamed the demise of the Temples (both the first and second) and other Jewish tragedies on sinat chinam, Hebrew for baseless, or gratuitous, hatred.
And here we are. Governments acceding to the desires of those who hate. Institutions and individuals permitting themselves to break promises, and making new promises that are seemingly meant for no purpose other than to hurt the Other. Once again, we are giving in to baseless hatred, breaking promises, ignoring the laws – which also are promises, promises of safety and protection – that we have chosen for ourselves.
Very soon, on the eve of Yom Kippur we will chant the ancient words of the Kol Nidrei prayer, “all vows,” in which we absolve ourselves of the responsibilities we undertook in making promises during the past year.
But we must not allow ourselves, as individuals or as communities, to break the vows we have made of freedom, of equality, of fairness and openness. We must continue to honor our promises to ourselves and each other. And we must speak out whenever someone tries to abrogate those rights, to break those solemn vows we have made to one another.
Sinat chinam, baseless hatred, will continue to raise its ugly head. Our job is to resist it with all our strength, and, in the words of Rav Kook, replace it with ahavat chinam, baseless love.