Fingers Crossed: TorahCycle Mattot

Mattot 2014Sometimes we cross our fingers for good luck. We’re wishing and hoping. Other times we cross them while rationalizing a “white” lie (to protect someone’s feelings, though as often it’s our own self-interest). And sometimes when we promise something we cross them because we want a great big loophole to vault through later.

This week’s reading deals with the rules for breaking vows: commitments made with sacred intention and obligation. A kind of spiritual promissory note. Often made in times of great stress, and abandoned later when what caused that stress abates. Think hospitals, wars, night terrors, and other forms of acute fear.

More optimistically, individuals make pledges to everything from diets to fund drives. Countries make promises too, as treaties and alliances. But when conditions change, we break our vows. It’s no more honorable in a country than a person, though there’s usually  spin-doctors to wrap the betrayal in flags and slogans.

Making a vow you’re not going to keep reinforces the idea that your word is worthless. Why would anyone else believe your promise to them if you don’t keep your promises to yourself? Why would you make a commitment if you didn’t really plan to keep it? Mostly, because we’re human. Fallible. Filled with good intentions and lousy habits.

Ironically, more often than not we do better at meeting commitments we make to others. That’s part of why behavior modification programs like diet plans, AA, and the like have public meetings. External accountability is often more effective than putting patches on your arm and hoping that you’ll be able to quit inhaling.

I believe in few absolute vows. Thou shalt not kill, is an example of a good one. But as I age I’m becoming more of a relativist. Not just to go easier on myself when I stray from my program du jour. But because I don’t think they work well for really effective change.

I’m finding vows more of a guilt trip than a benefit. Thou shalt not eat gluten, for example, in the absence of actual ciliac disease, is more a chance to screw up than to stare down temptation. The sense of failure that comes with a bagel is worse for me than the actual gluten.

Better to build up our sense of progress and pride by honoring intentions more gradually, more naturally, and more authentically. By making the right choices in each moment, time after time. Not saying something once and hoping I’m done. Because “done” is more often the path to backsliding and recrimination, looking for the loopholes, rather than taking the next step on the right road.

What vows do you make and which do you keep? What would happen if you allowed your deep intention to guide you rather than struggle with a one-time promise?

Too often vow-making and vow-breaking go hand in hand. Far better to choose good in the moment than out of fear or obligation. Regular reinforcement of your intention by making good choices more often is far more effective, llong lasting, and gentler on the soul.

Better to count the times you get it right, not the ones you blow it.

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