THE SPIRIT OF SPEECH

First Things | 7/14/2012 | Cole Aronson
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“If a man takes a vow or an oath upon himself,” reads Numbers 30:3, at the start of last week’s Torah reading, “he shall not break his word, but all that comes from his mouth he shall do.”

Broken oaths are not quite lies. A lie is a declaration against your beliefs. “From false things shall you distance yourself,” reads Exodus 23:7, enjoining all forms of insincerity. Kant thought that lying is a kind of coercion. I’d add that lying offends the practice of speech itself. The liar impregnates words, by nature meant to fit the world, with an alien purpose—the intentions of the speaker against the truth.

Broken - Vows - Lies - Speech - Rashi

Broken vows are not lies, but they, too, degrade speech. Rashi, the medieval French exegete, suggests that the Hebrew word yachel, which I translated in the Torah reading above as “break,” is more precisely interpreted as “profane.” The relevant root has a few senses, all meant to contrast the subject of the verb with a holy thing. The tone of Numbers 30:3, then, implies that breaking a vow is sacrilege—the Torah’s injunction against violating your word is more precise, and legally more severe, than its injunction against lying. A vow is a holy thing. Why? One possibility is that doing things with words is the only way man can, following in the ways of God, create something from nothing—in the case of a promise, by generating a new moral reality (in Judaism, also a legal reality).

The Torah’s first recorded speech is practical. The Almighty uttered the world out of a void. His intention and performance are one and the same. Before we encounter the Lord as “Guardian of truth, forever” (Psalms 146), we learn that He “commands the morning” (Job 38). In Genesis 2, “the Lord forms man from the dust of the earth,...
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