Keeping promises is an important Torah value. In this week's Torah portion (Gen. 47:31), Joseph makes a promise to his father, Jacob, that he does his utmost to keep. We too should do all we can to keep our promises.
In our story, a kid has to decide whether a promise is worth keeping.
Debby peeked into the oven and smiled. The special cookies she worked so hard on to bake for her best friend's, Cheryl's, birthday party came out perfectly. She just needed to turn off the oven and let them cool while she ran out to the gym for her daily workout - the highlight of her day - and...
Wait ... was that her cell phone ringing?
She picked up. It was Cheryl and as usual the two friends got into one of their deep, delicious chats-about-everything-and-nothing that carried on as Debby threw on her sweater and flew out the door.
She got to the end of her driveway when she bumped into Amy, the younger kid from next door, holding a book in her hand. She gave the kid a short wave and kept going.
"Hey, wait," Amy said.
Annoyed, Debby slowed down. "Yeah?"
"I came over so you could show me how to do my math homework like you said."
"Oh..." Debby did remember mentioning it yesterday, but she was certainly in no mood for it right now. "Listen, Amy. I'm sorry, but it just isn't going to work out for today, I'm super busy and..."
"But you promised," the girl said confidently. "I told you how hard it was and you promised you'd help me today and a promise is a promise."
It's true, Debby thought to herself, I did promise to help Amy out today, but why does it have to be now? Maybe after my workout?... No, I'm already going to have to rush like crazy to get dressed and get to the party on time. After the party ... maybe? Nah, that's not practical either. Kids Amy's age would be fast asleep by then. Well maybe I just won't do it. So what?
Debby was about to tell her 'no' and be on her way when she glanced at the girl's eyes. In Amy's mind, my promise is worth its weight in gold. Would it really be right to show her - and show myself - that it really isn't?
Shrugging, and figuring she'd get in some extra workout time tomorrow, Debby made herself smile and invited Amy and her math book to come with her back into the house.
When she opened the door, Debby smelled something strange, like burning ... COOKIES!
She ran to the oven - she'd forgotten to turn it off! - and grabbing an oven mitt she quickly pulled out the big tray of cookies. Whew! A couple of them were burnt around the edges, but the rest of them were still fine.
If she hadn't kept her promise and come back, the cookies she worked so hard on would have turned into lumps of charcoal and she didn't even want to think of what else might have happened...
"Are you going to show me how to do my homework now?" Amy asked, with her same, trusting grin.
"I sure am," Debby said. "A promise is a promise, isn't it?" She handed the kid a cookie and smiled. She was happy that she hadn't burnt the cookies and even happier that she hadn't 'burnt' another person, by breaking her promise.
Q. How did Debby feel at first about helping Amy with her homework?
A. She felt like she didn't want to do it, even though she had promised.
Q. How did she feel afterwards?
A. She felt she should keep her promise and in the end was glad she did.
Q. What life-lesson do you think Debby learned that day?
A. She hadn't felt it was so important to keep the things she promised, but seeing how seriously the other girl took her promises, she started to take them more seriously, too.
Q. Is it ever okay to break a promise?
A. If we promise to do something, which we later realize is dangerous or against our values, then it's reasonable and even right to break such a promise. But in almost all other cases we should try our best to do what we said we would.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Is there any reason to avoid making promises?
A. A promise we never make is one we'll never have to break. It's best to avoid promising to do things, and to say something like 'I fully hope and intend to do such and such, but I can't promise…' Of course, we shouldn't even say that unless we truly feel we'll be able to come through.
Q. What if we make a promise that we later realize is going to be very difficult to keep?
A. We have to determine if it is merely inconvenient - in which case we should endeavor to keep it anyway, or if there is a valid practical or ethical reason why it's just not feasible. In that case, it's probably better to back out, but to apologize and take it as a lesson not to promise things as easily in the future.