Diplomacy as a profession is also an important part of international relations. Indeed when I was very young I thought I might like to be a diplomat myself. I might even have been good at it. What changed my mind was that being a teacher of Torah came to seem a more satisfying challenge.
I have since come to know quite a number of diplomats. Most of them I found very stimulating people who served their country well. And on their behalf I have often been affronted by an old saying about diplomats: “When a diplomat says ‘yes’, it means ‘maybe’; when he says ‘maybe’, it means ‘no’; when he says ‘no’, he is no diplomat”.
Why am I affronted? Because the language of negotiation seems to require a certain amount of fluidity. Diplomatic ambiguity has its place, but it has its limits. And in ordinary day to day speech the better rule has to be, as the sages put it, “Your ‘yes’ should be ‘yes’; your ‘no’ should be no'”.
The Torah emphasises this lesson when it says in today’s sidra, “If a person makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word. He must carry out all that crosses his lips” (Num. 30:3).
Notice what the verse says. Not merely “he shall not break his word”, but “he shall not desecrate his word”. Words, especially promises, are holy. If you do not mean to live by them, you should keep quiet and say nothing.
How often do people fall out because someone made a promise and then forgot all about it, or did not really mean it seriously? How often do people say “yes”, when they mean “maybe” or even “no”, and then wonder why others do not trust them any more?
The verse, of course, speaks of promises to God. In a sense that’s an even bigger problem. You might think twice about promises to other people because you know there may be a comeback if you fail to perform. But God? So often we exploit His divine good nature. We say, “God will understand”. (As Voltaire put it, “God will forgive. That’s His job!”) Question: why should God understand, in the sense of writing off anything we promise Him as automatically worthless?
That’s why it was clever of Judaism to invent Kol Nidrei, which asks Divine forbearance just in case we are carried away with emotion and promise more than we should. But we shouldn’t exploit Kol Nidrei either. Before making promises we should think, and think again. Promises should not become a joke.