A family friend told us this story about himself. He was brought up with traditional Jewish values but was rather weak when it came to observance. Once he was in Florida with friends and they rented a boat. The weather turned against them, and it capsized. The shore seemed millions of miles away, and every stroke left him breathless and weaker than the one before. His friends were out of sight, his lungs felt like they were about to burst, and then he made his vow. "G-d, if you save me, I swear I'll go to Israel and study Torah". The words were barely out of his mouth when a fishing boat passed, threw him a rope and got him safely to shore. Then he added the crucial words:
"As soon as I can"
That meant when he finishes his degree. Then it meant when he and Marla finally get married. Then it meant when they have a big enough nest egg to put down a serious down payment on an apartment. Then it meant when the kids finish school. I have no idea of where the story would have ended except for what happened next. "I had a dream", he told us. "I was back in the water; I knew how close I was to death. When I woke up I told Marla, "It's time" and we were in Israel within two weeks."
How far do you have to be pushed before you remember some of the vows that you made consciously or subconsciously?
Your read Tehillim sometimes. You say, "If I forget you, Yerushalaim, may my right hand forget its cunning". The three weeks between the time that walls surrounding Yerushalaim were breached, and Temple was destroyed are beginning this coming week. In Eichah it says, "All of her enemies caught up to her between the sieges" The simple meaning of the verse is that the time between the beginning of the siege and its tragic end was a time that all of our enemies who were trying to destroy Yerushalaim (the her in the pasuk) reached their goal". The Arizal has an entirely different take. He says the "her" is the Shechina, G-d's presence. This time, these 21 precious days are the time of the worst calamities and defeats is the time you can "pursue her and catch up to her". You can recall the oath to remember Yerushalaim and uproot the senseless hatred that brought it about.
One of the most important ways to do this is to look more seriously at your speech. Try to find reasons to speak well of every Jew you encounter. When you see failure, feel compassion just as you do when you face your own failures. You can touch other people's lives, and almost re-create them.
The Parshah read at the beginning of the three weeks is Mattos. It begins with the laws of vows. Why is this relevant to this time of year?
Rav Hirsch the famous German Jewish commentator points out that reality can be divided into three segments. There are things that the Torah forbids. This means that when you do this (stealing for instance) you suffer spiritual harm. The act can't be redefined by "good" intentions ("liberating goods" from an electronic goods store during a riot, or long term anonymous borrowing in the dorm...). The verb for forbidden, therefore is "assur' which literally means tied down. When the Torah requires that you do something, such as giving tzedakah you have given the highest possible avenue of self- expression to your spiritual soul. It isn't just the world that is affected, you are changed, and that change lasts forever. This includes when the Torah doesn't either forbid or require you to do something specific in that great grey area. It includes whom you befriend or marry, what career you choose etc. This doesn't mean that all choices are equally good. It means that you have to recognize that your situation is unique to you, and make the best choices possible. Making a vow may strengthen you resolve. That isn't the only reason the vow is important. To quote Maharal, there is something transcendent in words; they aren’t just sounds, but a bridge that takes your inner life, which is has a thread of infinity within it, and gives it finite expression in this finite world. They ultimately define your relationship to the world you live in, and to G-d.
The first one to make a vow in the Torah was Yaakov. After he had to leave his home to escape his brother Eisov, he vowed that if G-d gives him bread and a garment to wear and returns him to his home, he (Yaakov) would tithe everything he has. His words were an expression of his inner reality and for that reason; they carried enormous weight when he made his famous vow. Yaakov's strongest characteristic was his sense of truth. He could see the entire picture, rather than just the parts that resonated to him. For this reason, he was able to raise each of his very divergent sons to be a tzadik without their being like him or like each other. You can choose to be more like Yaakov.
You know enough to realize that making vows in general is a bad idea (since you may not fulfill them) and in any case don't have any particular desire to take on anything that you don't have to. Your vow to remember Yerushalaim should inspire you to use your words differently, more lovingly, more respectfully. This isn't easy. None of you live in a world in which everyone is positive. You may have suffered disappointments, and met people who were less than inspiring. That makes your choices of words harder, and your growth more significant than they were when you were in the Neve bubble.