September 17, 2019

Table for Five: Matot Massei

Weekly Parsha: One verse, Five voices

When a man voweth a vow unto the Lord, or sweareth an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth. (Numbers 30:3)

Rabbi Susan Leider
Congregation Kol Shofar
What does it take for you to double down in life? What does it take to become more tenacious, more resolute? In this power-packed verse, there is not one, but three “doubling downs.” The verse could be translated, “When a person vows vowingly to God, or swears swearingly to bind bindingly his soul, a person shall do according to all that proceeds from the mouth.” Yes, the English is a bit awkward, but it more succinctly conveys the idea of doubling down. The ancient listener, with no written text in hand, was left with the aural impact of these words. The doubling would not escape the ear, but instead intensified the imperative behind these three key Hebrew words.

What is striking about this triple doubling down is that it is all up to the individual. A person vows or swears to bind his soul, not to break his word. Apart from the implication that someone else (other than God) should hear his word, this mitzvah seems radically independent. It does not hinge on others’ behavior or choices. It speaks to us as pure individuals. You can do this, it says.

So, how might we double down in life? What part of our life cries out to us for this focused attention? Is it about what comes out of our mouth? (Remember the focus here is on us, not on others). Or is it about our actions?

Double down: It’s up to you. 

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
British Orthodox rabbi, author and politician
Excerpted from
Freedom needs trust; trust needs people to keep their word; and keeping your word means treating words as holy, vows and oaths as sacrosanct. Only under very special and precisely formulated circumstances can you be released from your undertakings. That is why, as the Israelites approached the Holy Land where they were to create a free society, they had to be reminded of the sacred character of vows and oaths.

The temptation to break your word when it is to your advantage to do so can sometimes be overwhelming. That is why belief in God — a God who oversees all we think, say and do, and who holds us accountable to our commitments — is so fundamental. Although it sounds strange to us now, the father of toleration and liberalism, John Locke (England, 17th century), held that citizenship should not be extended to atheists because not believing in God, they could not be trusted to honor their word.

So the appearance of laws about vows and oaths at the end of the book of Bemidbar, as the Israelites are approaching the Holy Land, is no accident, and the moral is still relevant today. A free society depends on trust. Trust depends on keeping your word. That is how humans imitate God by using language to create.

Words create moral obligations, and moral obligations, undertaken responsibly and honored faithfully, create the possibility of a free society.

So, always do what you say you are going to do. If we fail to keep our word, eventually we will lose our freedom.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
President and dean of Valley Beit Midrash
Our moment is a desperate time for truth. With each passing day, the norms of facts, accuracy and honesty are reduced for short-sighted political or material gain. Though Americans are proud of our society that normatively looks to righteousness as the foundation of our national identity, we seem to be slipping more and more into a valueless society where mendacity and capriciousness reign with overwhelming force. Information is not so much presented as it is distorted, where power über alles rules and forthrightness falters. 

Of course, none of this yeridat ha’dorot (ethical decline) happens in isolation; remaining silent equals complicity. Indeed, there has been a social crumbling of integrity and we are now experiencing the ramifications of this post-fact ethos. But it does not have to be this way. Indeed, this week’s parsha makes a powerful point that integrity and the centrality of truth-seeking are essential for the moral progress of humanity. 

While the verse refers explicitly to “vows,” we also understand this language to indicate that we are meant to value the actions of our hands as much as the words that flow from our mouths. In all we do, we are to be decent and virtuous, never to sink so low as to formulate falsehoods against anyone in our personal or professional lives. In everything we do, we must be cognizant to not let our tongues betray our deeds or our minds. 

May we seek justice through the enterprise of rebuilding truth.

Rabbi Eli Fink
Jewish Journal
The prohibition against breaking a promise fits neatly into the Torah’s overall plan for the ideal society. It is a sensible law that is ethically and sociologically sound. But why now? Why does God wait until the Israelites are about to enter the Holy Land to teach this seemingly random law? 

One way to understand the story arc of the Torah is as a justification for settling the Land of Israel. God created the world and gave it to mankind. Then God chose a special family and promised the tract of land to them under specific conditions. The terms of the deal are the laws and rituals of the Torah. 

Up until this point in the story, God’s promise is yet unfulfilled. It would have seemed hypocritical for God to mandate that we keep our word while God’s promise lingered unresolved. We would have rejected the teaching. Only now, standing at the threshold of the Promised Land, was it appropriate for God to instruct the Israelites that they too must keep their promises. God practices what God preaches.

By waiting for the right moment, God teaches us integrity in two ways. The text of the law preaches fidelity to our words and the teaching itself is an example of how God practices fidelity to God’s word.

It is tantalizing to dismiss the word of anyone who fails to keep their promises. Don’t give others that excuse to dismiss your words. Be like God and practice what you preach.

Rabbi Andrea Steinberger
University of Wisconsin Hillel
Excerpted from
From Moses’ speech we may infer that the power of the spoken word is holy. We can stretch our understanding of the Torah portion to mean that not just promises are important to us, but words themselves. We must be careful of the words we speak, because they are powerful.

If words are so powerful, are they magic? If we pray, can we make something happen, something magical, with our words? No, we cannot. But we pray for something holy to happen. We creatures, who have the God-given ability to create, can create a holy moment with our words, facing the ordinary and creating the extraordinary. When we turn to God and to one another with our words of prayer and praise, we create a holy moment in time.

There is an appropriate custom associated for the final words of each book of Torah. At the end of each book, we recognize that the words of Torah are holy and help us to grow in strength. This Shabbat, as we finish the book of Numbers, we say, “hazak hazak, v’nithazek,” which means, “Be strong, be strong and let us strengthen one another.”

As we say these words this Shabbat, we will have said important words to one another. We will have said: “May the words of Torah strengthen us all. May we learn to speak in holy and kind ways to one another. May we learn to make the ordinary extraordinary. May we go from strength to strength.”

May it be so.