Broken Promises

My first year teaching in DC I started the year as an assistant in 4th grade, but in early November I became the first grade assistant.

There was a little boy in the first grade class who needed more of my time than some of the other students.

Because some extra support was helpful (we all need extra support sometimes!), he and I spent a lot of time together and I got to know him quickly.

Of course he wasn’t just a little moving target of energy. He was (and is) exceptionally smart and more compassionate than the day is long.

There was one more thing I learned about him, not from him, but from a coworker in passing. His mother had died. I found this out on November 10th.

On November 11th, as was the school’s tradition, we had a Veterans Day performance. The children in grades K-6 took turns on stage, each class singing a song about peace or patriotism. It’s a very sweet sight to see — unless you’re a wiggly six year old who has to sit through all these songs.

So of course I was sitting next to this little boy, to provide support for him during this very hard day. Don’t underestimate how difficult it is to sit! I was prepared to give him reminders and other tools for the assembly, and take him for a walk if necessary. What I wasn’t prepared for was this:

As the school performance began, he burst into tears. I picked him up onto my lap and asked him what was wrong. “MY MOM PROMISED SHE WOULD BE HERE FOR THIS!” he sobbed.

I promise I’ll tell you what happened next, but first I want to ask you this question:


We all get lazy sometimes, and even worse, occasionally forget to take accountability for our actions. We have good intentions when we say we’re going to do something, but then…life happens. And let’s face it, life is messy. Pretty much always.There will frankly always be something that interferes with our commitments if we let it.

But at what point is that interference big enough to warrant breaking a commitment? A promise? What about an oath? And… what’s the difference?

In Hebrew, the root for the word oath is שבע — SH, V, A. If you read Hebrew, you may have noticed that those are the same letters that are at the root of the number 7: שבע — SH, V, A. Seven is the number of completion. An oath is taken on with great intention and commitment to see it through to completion.

So if you don’t plan on seeing this through to completion, you should probably, well… watch your mouth.

In this week’s Torah portion, we learn that if a man makes an oath, he must carry it out. If he doesn’t, he is accountable to God. But… wait for it… If a woman makes an oath and is prevented from carrying it out either by her father or her husband, she is not held accountable.

Because, you see, it wasn’t her fault. She was prevented from seeing it through by someone with more power. That said, by stepping in, that father or husband then became accountable for the oath. In preventing her from carrying it out, they would be the one to answer to God as to why this wasn’t seen through to completion.

There are some times when laziness is our only excuse for not keeping our word. But there are other times when forces bigger than ourselves get in the way.

On that November day twenty years ago, I cannot even imagine what my face looked like when a six-year-old looked up at me through tears over this unfulfilled promise. My heart was absolutely broken, and I was definitely in over my twenty-three-year-old head. As I gave him a bigger hug and searched for what I might say, he looked up and said, “Oh, there she is,” and went back into his seat.

I can’t imagine what my face looked like in that moment, either!

Here’s what I didn’t know at the time: this little boy’s mother died when he was a year old. Sad, yes. But I had no idea when she died, just that she had died and that her son was expecting his mother that day. I also didn’t know that his father had remarried to a woman who the little boy called Mom. She’s his second mom, but I didn’t know that, either.

It was his second mom who promised to attend, and she did attend. I recently told this story to the little boy – now a grown man. He didn’t remember it, of course. After all, he wasn’t the one who had gone into shock. Well, and he was six. But most importantly, his mom had shown up. She saw her promise through to completion. If she hadn’t, it probably would’ve been a more memorable day for him – and not in a good way.

Each one of us quite possibly disappoints others in little ways every day. Life gets in the way – usually because we let it. But also usually where we fall short of our commitments and intentions are likely when it comes to promises that are much lighter than oaths.

What is so big that it calls for not just a promise, but an actual oath with full-on commitment to see it through to completion despite struggles along the way? Do you have goals, plans, or ideals that are so important that you are willing to not just promise to follow through on them, but make an oath and see it through to completion?

About the Author
Esther Goldenberg is the founder of Out-of-the-Box Judaism. Her books The Out-of-the-Box Bat Mitzvah: A Guide to Creating a Meaningful Milestone and A Story Every Week: Torah Wisdom for Today's World is available on and at other online booksellers. Join the conversation at
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