I have always been intrigued by the traditional way in which diamond merchants seal a deal. They shake hands and say “Mazel and Brocha” (“good fortune and blessing”). Once those few words have been said, the deal is done and it has all the power of a legal, contractual transaction.
It is a tribute to the diamond fraternity that in their industry, a word is a word. In some other industries, even a contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Here, the spoken word is deemed to be binding and irrevocable. Interestingly, the “Mazel and Brocha” principle has been upheld in arbitration cases throughout the world.
This week’s Torah portion, Matot, opens with an injunction about the sanctity of our words: “And Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes . . . if a man takes a vow . . . he shall not desecrate his word; whatever issues from his mouth he shall do . . .” (Numbers 30:2–3).
A word is a word. Promises are promises. And the words we utter are sacred and inviolate. If we disregard what we say, we have profaned and desecrated our words. That is why many people are careful to add the words bli neder—“without vowing”—whenever they say something that might be construed as a vow, so that, should they be prevented from fulfilling what they expressed their intention to do, this would not constitute the grave offense of violating a vow. This, of course, in no way diminishes the regard we hold for our words, and the need to carry out one’s promises even if one stipulated that it is not a vow.
The question is: Why was this commandment given to the “heads of the tribes”? Surely, it applies to each and every one of us. A simple answer is that since it is usually leaders who make the most promises, it is they who need the most cautioning.
Politicians are infamous for campaign promises, which—once they are elected—are rarely fulfilled. They tell about a candidate who promised to lower taxes if he were elected. As soon as he took office, he raised taxes. When he was challenged by the people about his unkept promise, he actually admitted that he had lied. The naïve electorate thought that was quite a genuine confession, and promptly decided that he was the most honest politician they had ever met. We are a gullible people indeed.
Many books have been published on the subject of business ethics. While there are a great many laws and nuances to this theme, at the end of the day, the acid test of business ethics is, “Did you keep your word?” Did you carry out your commitments, or did you duck and dive around them? It makes no difference how other companies are behaving. It matters little whether our competitors are corrupt. We must honor our promises, and that is the ultimate bottom line.
Whether in our business relationships or in the tzedakah pledges we make to the synagogue or to other charities, our word should be our bond. Even if we are worried about the immediate financial costs, we can be assured that, with the passage of time, the reputation we will acquire by speaking truthfully and keeping our word will more than compensate any short-term losses.
Leave the spin doctoring to the politicians. A Jew’s word should be sacred.