Shabbat Shalom: How Do We Find Our Humanness?

Jul 13, 2023 | Article

Shabbat Shalom: How Do We Find Our Humanness?

Jul 13, 2023

By: Dan Leshem, PhD
Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) Director

“To breed an animal with the prerogative to promise – is that not precisely  

the paradoxical task which nature has set herself with regard to humankind?” 

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality 

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, starts his discussion on this week’s Torah portion asking why the discussion of promises made and broken occupies such a central place in Jewish ethics and law. In order to answer this question, he goes back to a much more fundamental one, “What sets humans apart from other animals?” It cannot simply be language since dolphins and even bees use language to share warnings and information with each other. It is not our ability to speak that makes us unique, it is instead our ability to use language to build trust, collaboration, and communal connections. Human language creates things that did not exist beforeour words at times create something out of nothing. Rabbi Sacks shares the following example: “When a groom says to his bride under the chupah, ‘Behold you are betrothed to me,’ he is not describing a marriage, he is getting married.”

Our ability to trust each other, to have faith in our neighbors, our community, and our leaders, no less than our trust in the laws of our nation are essential to our ability to collaborate, to build things out of nothing. When we promise our children to make their birthday magical or assure them that they will be safe when we send them off to sleepaway camp, we lay the foundation for our closeness and trust in each other. When the Jewish Community Relations Council promises to consult across the Jewish community and then represent its concerns and needs in the state capital, we are creating a covenant and opening a conversation. We are committing ourselves to service and want to be held accountable by the community we aim to serve.

But what about more mundane examples from everyday life? Do we “promise” to do a lot of things for a lot of people? Do we think about how foundational the act of promising and being held to our commitments is to relationship, camaraderie, friendship, and citizenship? If, as many people believe, our obligations to each other are more vital than our obligations to the divine, than frivolously committing ourselves to deliver on our words, without the intention to follow through, is a great blasphemy. Making and keeping our oaths is a pathway to sanctifying the innumerable mundane experiences in life. In Rabbi Sacks’ phrasing, “Words create moral obligations, and moral obligations, undertaken responsibly and honored faithfully, create the possibility of a free society.” Once again, we confront the truism so often repeated in Jewish tradition that freedom paradoxically does not resemble “doing what you want.” Rather freedom is the free commitment of ourselves to a covenant, to a calling, to a people, to one another. May we all find profound human connection through our commitments, our covenants, and our words.

Shabbat Shalom.

Please email Dan Leshem at with questions or comments.