I recently learned that the meaning of the phrase “Put up or shut up” comes from boxing, when one fighter would challenge another and require him to put up money for a match or stop his fighting words. I’m guessing that’s the same origin for another expression, “Put your money where your mouth is.”

I live in Washington DC, the capital of the free world as some like to call it, but which could also be called the land of the broken promise. That’s a cliché, of course, but only because it’s true. Politicians with the best of intentions, as well as those who simply want to win votes, pledge to change things for the better but virtually all successful politicians break their promises. In 1988, presidential candidate George H.W. Bush famously said, “Read my lips…no new taxes,” but in 1990 he couldn’t find agreement with Congress and up went taxes. Similarly, in order to fulfill a campaign promise, one of Barack Obama’s first orders after his inauguration as our 44th president was to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, but as I write this Guantanamo is still open.

You would think that these guys would have known better, right?

It seems that no one, even powerful politicians, can control all the circumstances that might keep a promise from being fulfilled. “Hey, I thought I’d make it to your place by 8:00, but I got a flat tire, missed the bus, overslept”…or any one of 100 other reasons our promises wind up in the trash with everything else that’s broken.

So what does all this have to do with Yom Kippur? Actually everything.

Yom Kippur starts out with one of the most famous of all Jewish prayers: Kol Nidre (All Vows):

“All vows we are likely to make, all oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths.”

More than a prayer, Kol Nidre is a carefully worded legal formula that seems to have been written to get us off the hook for broken promises we made to God. Are we to think that if Bush or Obama were Jewish and said this prayer would they be free from the guilt of uttering empty words? Of course not. Contrary to the accusations of anti-Semites, Kol Nidre was never intended as an easy way out of our commitments to others. Rather, it’s meant as a fix for all those foxhole commitments we make to God when we feel out of control and over the edge.

Words matter and we’re only as good as our word. Maybe that’s why Yeshua said,

“I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.  All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’”

It might be too late this year, but if you take his words to heart, you might have one less sin to confess next Yom Kippur…and that would be a good thing.

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