Parshat Mattot begins by introducing the laws of vows and oaths: “When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said” (Bamidbar 30:3).
Oaths up the ante. By taking an oath, a person raises the stakes if he or she does not follow through. The Talmud notes that a person can take an oath to perform (or not violate) a Torah commandment (Nedarim 8a) even though he is already obligated to keep it. The oath functions as an even more intense motivator than the original Biblical law.
In his classic work Michtav Me’Eliyahu, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler elucidates the psychology behind taking an oath to fulfill a mitzvah (4:237). At times, he writes, we become aware of our own laxness in Torah observance and want to self-correct. Often, though, when we try to fight our weakness head on, the yetzer hara is too powerful and we fail.
The solution is to force our hand and avoid the self-control battle in the first place. We need to craft conditions that would force to comply. The classic biblical way to accomplish this task is taking an oath. In ancient times, people viewed oaths with such awe and trepidation that the prospect of violating an oath was a strong enough factor to force self-compliance.
Already in the times of Chazal, however, reverence for oaths diminished. People would make oaths, but still fall short. As a consequence, not only would they violate a regular commandment; on top of that, they would also violate their oath. Our Sages, therefore, frowned upon making oaths.
Yet, even though we generally abstain from taking oaths nowadays, figuring out other ways to up the ante and solidify our commitment is essential. Rabbi Dessler suggests we think of ways to, in effect, bind ourselves to our commitments without taking an oath. As an example, if someone is struggling to learn Torah, he or she could commit to giving a shiur on a topic that requires further research. The pressure to give a powerful presentation will force the person to study.
In the psychological literature on self-control, this stratagem is called a “pre-commitment device.” In a 2002 research article, Israeli-born psychologist Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch define it as the “voluntary imposition of constraints [that are costly to overcome] on one’s future choices in a strategic attempt to resist future temptations.” The oft-cited paradigm of this technique in Greek mythology is Ulysses, who tied himself to a mast so he could not be lured by the song of the Sirens.
Pre-commitment devices can help with many self-control battles including procrastinating, eating unhealthily, drinking too much alcohol, over-spending, and wasting time. If we spend too much time scrolling through social media instead of working on an important project, we can explore various software programs that will block our Internet or social media access for a set period of time.
If we know that every time we go to a certain restaurant, we end up choosing an unhealthy option, we could pre-commit to a better choice by going to a restaurant with a less tempting menu.
Whether the goal is to improve our self-control, increase the amount of mitzvot we perform, or decrease the amount of aveirot we violate, we can look to the message behind oaths and conceive of different ways to bind ourselves to improvement by pre-committing to progress.