A government's promise must be kept

Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald

The Parasha in our everyday life - Vayigash – 5781

At the beginning of our Parasha, Yehudah turns to Yosef in an attempt to change the decree and release Binyamin:

וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה וַיֹּאמֶר֮ בִּ֣י אֲדֹנִי֒ יְדַבֶּר־נָ֨א עַבְדְּךָ֤ דָבָר֙ בְּאָזְנֵ֣י אֲדֹנִ֔י וְאַל־יִ֥חַר אַפְּךָ֖ בְּעַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֥י כָמ֖וֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹֽה׃

"Then Yehudah went up to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh". (Bereshit 44:18)

According to Chazal, this is a 'diplomatic' address - an ambiguous one that has a request, but also criticism and a claim:

כִּ֥י כָמ֖וֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹֽה - מַה פַּרְעֹה גוֹזֵר וְאֵינוֹ מְקַיֵּם, מַבְטִיחַ וְאֵינוֹ עוֹשֶׂה, אַף אַתָּה כֵן; וְכִי זוֹ הִיא שִׂימַת עַיִן שֶׁאָמַרְתָּ לָשׂוּם עֵינְךָ עָלָיו?

"For thou art even as Pharaoh — "In my sight you are as important as the king. This is the literal meaning, but a Midrashic explanation is: you are as unreliable as Pharaoh — just as Pharaoh issues decrees and does not carry them out, makes promises and does not fulfil them, so also do you. Is this what you meant by “setting your eyes” upon him when you said: “Bring him down and I will set mine eyes upon him”?" (Rashi ibid, Bereshit Rabbah 93:6).

-When you demanded that we bring you Binyamin from his father's house, despite the consequences this would have on our old father, you said it was only to see him, to make sure we are honest (pasuk 21), and a ruler's statement is a promise! And now you are not living up to your promise! In a manipulative way you brought him to prison, and you prevent him from returning to his home and his father?! There is criticism here that he and Pharaoh as rulers were required to keep their word meticulously and keep their promises.

The same is true of Pharaoh's governmental promise to all the region; That anyone who wishes to purchase food from Egypt can do so freely and safely, and are assured they will not be stopped but will be able to return home in peace:

ועוד פרעה הכריז בכל ארצו כל מי שיבא לשבור בר, ביאתו והליכתו לשלום היינו מבטיח ואינו עושה.

"Furthermore, Pharaoh had announced to the whole world that everybody was welcome to buy grain in Egypt and does not keep his promises". (Chizkuni ibid)

"And Pharaoh declared in all his land all that came to buy grain, his coming and going would be in peace but they were perceived as spies" (Rav Obadiah Bartenura).

Not only was there a breach of promise by Pharaoh but there was also 'incrimination of the brothers' on false charges of security offenses and attempted espionage, to imprison them.

The demand from the ruler and government official to keep his word and promise, even when not in writing, is a moral requirement enshrined in law, in many countries, because it is the basis for the public's trust in its leaders and systems of government.

This requirement also has important expressions in Halacha. The Gemara assumes as a starting point: מלכותא שאני דלא הדרא ביה

"Actions taken by the government are different, as the government does not go back on its decisions".

"The same applies to authorized public representatives, who must keep their promises even if they were stated orally and were not signed in the contract" (Responsa Rabbeinu Asher -Asher ben Yehiel – ROSH, siman 10:6 19,21).

The individual can be sure that the promise of those in authority is fulfilled because "there is no public way of fooling around" (Responsa RIVASH, Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet, Siman 476, Quoted in Rama).

This question was also put to the test in an appeal brought before the Great Rabbinical Court on a political issue. When a dispute arose regarding a promise given to carry out a rotation between the NRP party and Agudat Israel in Rehovot: "Public breadwinners in their mission in public affairs, they should not use claims of commitments they made, they are not binding, since by law there is an appeal in force. Speech and commitment, especially in matters of the public, are sacred, which must be preserved and observed with full intention, and, G-d forbid, without desecration." (Appeal 1996, 173, 176).

Also, civil law in Israel stipulates that a governmental obligation must be fulfilled: "A promise given by a ruler within the scope of his legal authority, with the intention that it will have legal validity and the other party accepts it this way, public decency requires that the promise be fulfilled. Even if the citizen did not change his situation adversely because of the promise", and he -"there is no legal justification for changing or revoking it" (Judge Branson High Court - Scitex Corporation Ltd).

On the other hand, the phenomenon of promise, from the people who represent the government, is present with us from the first days of the State, as the statement by the Finance Minister who said: "I promised but I did not promise to keep."

Later, there were also promises that not only were not fulfilled but did the opposite of what they promised. In the 16th Knesset election campaign in early 2003, against the background of Amram Mitzna's platform that advocated unilateral disengagement from Gaza, Sharon declared and promised his voters time and time again. "Netzarim and Kfar Darom's Law is as Tel Aviv's Law"! However, when he was elected, he said that "The things you see from here can't be seen from there" and in the summer of 2004 he stated that "Not even one Jew will remain in the Gaza Strip by the end of 2005".  And although he preached all his days against retreat caused by terrorism, he carried out the "disengagement plan".

There is so much criticism when a leader does not keep his word and does the exact opposite of what he promised his constituents.

He was preceded by the late Yitzhak Rabin, who spoke at an election rally in Katzrin in the summer of 1992, a day before the elections to the 13th Knesset. After Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, he said: "It is inconceivable that we would descend from the Golan Heights in peace. Whoever thinks about descending from the Golan Heights is forsaking and damaging Israel's security." He attacked the Shamir government, saying it was not doing enough to strengthen the settlement in the Golan. Immediately after his election, he began negotiations with the Syrians on the withdrawal from the Golan and the evacuation of settlements.

And even here there was a lot of criticism even within the settlements that belonged to his party; they quoted his own statements in front of him through loud speakers and signs.

There is no denying that sometimes promises that had sincere intentions were not kept for various and objective reasons, however over the years it seems this has almost become the norm; public figures make promises to the voter to entice him to vote for them when their intentions are totally different to begin with. And the public? Seems to have gotten used to the fact that promises are not to be taken seriously and treats them with cynicism and distrust.

It's time to change! We deserve credible leaders and public figures! Exemplary people, whose words and hearts are in the same place. It is not right to accept the norm that when public figures promise, they cannot be trusted or believed. And will even do the opposite. This can damage public confidence in those strategic areas where mistrust can rise at a high price and even at the cost of living. We see what happens when public trust is damaged in an emergency period, a pandemic. And we have even seen this in times of war when trust in public leaders is required to harness the public to give backing to the decisions of its leaders.

As it is written in the pasuk:

ט֖וֹב אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹֽא־תִדֹּ֑ר מִשֶׁתִּדּ֖וֹר וְלֹ֥א תְשַׁלֵּֽם׃

“It is better not to vow at all than to vow and not fulfill.” (Kohelet 5:4).

Meaning: Better not to promise than to promise and not keep!

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