The Book of Bereshis (Genesis) is filled with oaths, promises, and covenants. G-d promised Noach that he would never again destroy the world. He promised Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov that their children would become a nation and inherit the Promised Land. Avraham insisted that his trusted servant, Eliezar, take an oath that he would find a wife for Yitzchak in accordance with his specific instructions. Yakov made a deal with G-d before meeting Lavan and promised to eventually build the Bais Hamikdash on the site of his fateful dream. In Parshas Miketz, Yehudah promised to care for Binyamin and offered Yakov as insurance his portion in the World to Come. In this week’s Parsha, Yakov insisted that Yoseph swear to him that he would be buried in Eretz Yisroel. According to the Talmud (Sotah 36b) Yoseph blackmailed Pharaoh into allowing Yakov to be buried in Eretz Yisroel by reminding him of the oath he had taken 26 years earlier not to reveal that Pharaoh did not understand Hebrew. At the end of the Parsha, Yoseph asked his brothers to take his remains with them to Eretz Yisroel upon their exodus from Egypt. However, he did not insist that they take an oath.
The Halacha’s (Jewish law) attitude toward swearing and oath taking is very serious. In addition to it being the third of the Ten Commandments, “Do not take the name of G-d in vain”, there are many other mitzvos associated with the severity of making a verbal commitment.
1. Why are oaths so serious, and why did the Patriarchs engage in making and accepting them?
2. Why did G-d have to promise the Avos that the land of Israel would belong to their descendents? Wasn’t G-d’s statement by itself enough of a guarantee? 3. Why did Avraham insist that Eliezar take an oath? Eliezar’s entire character was defined by his uncompromising and unyielding service to his master, Avraham. Why did Avraham insist on an oath?
4. Why did Yakov promise to build the Bais Hamikdash on the top of Mt. Moriah, and did he ever fulfill his vow?
5. Why did Yehudah offer his portion in the World to Come as a guarantee for Binyamin’s safety, and why did Yakov accept his offer? Which father would willingly allow one of his children to put his eternity in danger for the sake of another of his children?
6. Why does Yakov demand an oath from Yoseph regarding his burial, and why didn’t Yoseph do the same to his brothers regarding his own burial?
As mentioned earlier, the Torah places great emphasis on our verbal commitments. In Halacha, “a man’s word is his bond.” There are also esoteric dimensions to oaths that relate our verbal commitments to the continued existence of the world. In part, that is what the Talmud means when it says, “the world trembled when G-d said, ‘Do not take my name in vain’.” Rav S.R. Hirsch explains that the Third Commandment associates G-d with our verbal commitments and constitutes a fundamental confirmation or denial of G-d, if done truthfully or under false pretenses.
“An oath in the Name of G-d implies that we seek to prove the veracity of our word and the honesty of our actions by subordinating our entire future to G-d’s power of deciding over our fate. Hence, conversely, perjury represents the most contemptuous denial of G-d.”
It is a uniquely human ability to create a reality, or the potential for a reality, with mere words. It is one of the dimensions of having been created in G-d’s image. Just as He created the universe with words, “With ten statements the world was created,” so too we are able to create and destroy worlds with our words. (Note the obvious connection to the devastation and seriousness of Lashon Harah – slander).
As with all things, the power of an oath can be either positive or negative. It is negative when we do not honor our commitments. On the other hand, in a world where a “man’s word is his bond,” and integrity is a cherished value, an oath can be a very powerful motivator. The Shem Mishmuel in Parshas Chayei Sarah explains why Avraham demanded an oath from his trusted Eliezar. When a person is bound by an oath, dormant strengths and abilities are awakened to allow him to meet his obligations. That is why lasting relationships can only be built upon commitment. Our ability to overcome adversity and difficulty in human relationships is often solely because a couple has made a commitment to each other. In fact, Chazal had little trust in emotional commitments, which easily change, and therefore insisted that every marriage be bound by a financial commitment called a Ketubah. Otherwise, relationships would be as dispensable as a dirty disposable pan. Why bother to wash it when a shiny new one can easily replace it?
An oath is a commitment, and an honest person will do everything possible to honor that commitment. Therefore, Avraham demanded that Eliezar take an oath so that he would be determined to overcome all obstacles in finding a wife for Yitzchak.
The numerous times that G-d promised the forefathers that their children would grow into a nation and inherit the Land was to teach us how we must relate to our verbal commitments. True, G-d’s word is reality; however, He nevertheless made a promise so that we would be able to emulate the commitment and seriousness of taking an oath.
The same was true with Yehudah, Binyamin, and Yakov. Yakov accepted Yehudah’s guarantee because he knew that it would motivate Yehudah to seek out reserves of courage and strength that Yehudah did not know he possessed. On the other hand, when Reuven first offered to guarantee Binyamin’s safety with the lives of his own two sons, Yakov did not accept his offer. Reuven had no right or control over the lives and destinies of his sons. Their future was up to themselves and G-d. The only area of control that we have is over ourselves. Even if Reuven would have been motivated to overcome all obstacles, the security was not his to offer. Had Reuven offered himself as security in the same way that Yehudah had done, Yakov would have accepted his guarantee.
When Yakov awakened from the Dream of the Ladder, the future of his family had been guaranteed. Yakov understood that G-d’s promise was conditional on his withstanding the assimilative influences of Lavan and his cohorts. His success would be assured if after 20 long years with Lavan, Yakov would be able to claim, “and I still kept all 613 commandments.” (Ber.Rashi-22:5). However, the real test would be his children. As strong as Yakov was in his commitment to serving G-d and continuing the legacy of Avraham and Yitzchak, it would be the degree of his success in transmitting that commitment to his children that would be the fulfillment of G-d’s promise.
Yakov’s promise to build the Bais Hamikdash was predicated on his successfully raising twelve sons committed to spreading the word of G-d. If he would accomplish G-d’s promise of birthing a nation and inheriting the Land, then he would have been successful in raising sons who would build the Bais Hamikdash. Therefore, Yakov took an oath that he would build the Bais Hamikdash to guarantee that he would do everything conceivable to overcome all obstacles and accomplish his mission.
When Yakov insisted on Yoseph’s promise to bury him in Israel, Yakov was guaranteeing that Yoseph would do everything possible to accomplish his request. As we see from the Talmud in Sotah, Yakov’s insistence was the strategy that allowed Yoseph to overcome Pharaoh’s reluctance. However, in the case of Yoseph and his brothers, the brothers were not in the position to guarantee the success of his desire to be reburied in Israel. It would depend upon his brother’s children and grandchildren. Therefore, it didn’t make any sense for Yoseph to demand an oath.
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.