September 16, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Matot-Masei

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

If a man makes a vow to the Lord or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do. -Numbers 30:3


Judy Gruen
Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith”

In the Torah, vows and oaths are serious business. Consequences for treating them lightly can be severe. 

Jacob was the first to make a vow (neder). After he awoke from his dream in which he saw angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven, he struck a deal. Jacob vowed to build a home for God in that awesome place (Beit-El), and tithe his income for holy purposes if God would protect him throughout his dangerous journey. 

God kept His word but Jacob delayed so long in keeping his that God had to remind him to do so. God’s “reminder” bookends two tragedies: the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dina, and Rachel’s death while giving birth to Benjamin. 

A midrash suggests that these calamities were caused by Jacob’s failure to honor his vow without delay. Interestingly, the root letters of the word neder include dalet-reish, spelling dira, or abode. In this way, making a neder is akin to creating a “home” of sorts for God. It must be treated with honor. 

Jacob suffered because he delayed in fulfilling his vow to God but God showed compassion for Jacob’s good intentions by promising that the Shekhinah would accompany Jacob’s descendants during their long exile. 

The Torah reminds us that our words create realities. They have power and often, unintended consequences. What a timely reminder in today’s political environment, where harsh words are recklessly hurled at opponents with the intention to hurt, not heal. We can and must do better. 

Lt. Yoni Troy
Israel Defense Forces officer 

By saying if you swear an oath, if you commit to something, you must follow through, the Torah takes one of the most fluid things we have — words — and makes them concrete. 

Our technological world often weakens that commitment. While multitasking intensely, we send out so many words, at a breakneck pace, knowing they can be erased within seconds. The person we’re interacting with is often unseen, distancing us from the power of our words — the effect they have on people. 

Words have great power, not only in the mystical, kabbalistic sense but in a practical manner, too. Language is one of our greatest tools. Just as words can be tools of informing, explaining, building — creating good — they can also easily become tools of destruction. 

The Torah is teaching us about responsibility. As a recently commissioned officer in the Israeli army, I have a newfound appreciation for words. Any given word I say to my subordinates can be binding — when it’s a command. That power requires me to be responsible with my words. They don’t just represent me but the entire chain of command. At the same time, my soldiers know that they, too, must be careful, because a defiant word can get them punished, even jailed. 

So, I remind them, me, and all of us: Be wary of what you do or say. Although a certain action or phrase may not seem significant to you, it may affect others more than you know. 

Rabbi David Block
Assistant principal, Judaic Studies, Shalhevet High School

The message here seems obvious: Have integrity. That’s immensely important, but it’s not the whole story. The Torah isn’t gratuitously verbose; yet it adds “one shouldn’t violate one’s word,” when the simple “one should fulfill one’s word” would have done the trick. Why the repetitious phrase? 

The Hebrew word used for “violate” is “yahel” (y-h-l), which is strange, because yahel simply doesn’t mean violation. This enigma lends to a fascinating possibility: Perhaps “y-h-l” is from “h-l-l” (Rashi, Ibn Ezra), which means to desecrate, or to make the holy mundane. The implication would be powerful: Our words are naturally holy. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, however, points out that, grammatically, “y-h-l” is in the causative voice (hiphil); the directive is not “don’t desecrate your word” but “don’t allow you words to stay mundane. 

The difference between the two is all about the starting point. Are our words intrinsically holy, such that what we say has value simply because it left our mouths? Or, do our words have the potential for holiness? The contrast is subtle, but I believe it gets to the heart of how we perceive our own spirituality. As Hirsch says elsewhere (Numbers 16:3), God doesn’t tell us that we “are holy,” but charges us to “become holy.” Our verse teaches that our words can well be holy — but only if we choose them to be, if we sanctify them. Without that striving, like our own spirituality, they remain mundane. And what a tragedy that would be. 

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Associate dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, AJU

Whether in oral or written communication, one missing word, one wrong word, one misused word changes an entire conversation. Words matter — they hurt, explain, heal, comfort, show concern or even touch. 

The Torah distinguishes between neder (vow), a promise to do something (i.e., I vow to use my time to help others), and shevuah (oath), a prohibition on something ordinarily permitted or a requirement to do something not ordinarily required (i.e., I swear to stop screaming). Vows/oaths are pledges to the self, to one another and to God. Therefore, the Torah cautions against breaking our promises because they are sacred. If you make a promise, you must be prepared to live by it and uphold it! 

Rashi comments that words are sacred trust and that relationships – between humans and God, and among humans — develop through honesty and trust. Broken words lead to broken trust, which can ultimately end a relationship. Words promised and promises fulfilled help build trust, restore faith and ultimately seal these sacred relationships. 

Proverbs teaches: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” We humans have words for all occasions. Still, in the heat of a moment, we say things we don’t mean and we make promises that are later forgotten. 

Our words do indeed have the power to kill and the power to breathe life. The choice is ours in how to choose our words to transform tragedy into joy; despair into hope; death to life. 

Ilan Reiner
Architect, author of “Israel History Maps”

In the course of Jewish life, we encounter many aspects of kedushah (holiness, literally, separated/distinguished). As the Israelite people, the Holy Nation, gaze across the Jordan into Israel, the Holy Land, the tribal leaders are warned about another aspect of holiness — our words! 

Individuals may have various thoughts on a subject and intentions about what to do. However, once words are spoken, they shape reality. Words are sacred. So when vows are made but not kept, then the words are desecrated — thereby violating the covenant those individuals made with their words. The word yakhel (meaning desecrate, sometimes translated as “violate”) comes from the root KH-L-L, the desecration of kodesh (holiness). Thus, “A man … shall not desecrate his word.”

Why bring it up now? The people are about to enter the promised land. They will build a society and country to live in, based on the laws and guidelines given in the Torah. They will have to work together in establishing sovereignty over the land of Israel. When working as a nation, in concert with one another, words matter and build trust. Staying true to one’s word is the very basis of sustaining a just society where we’re accountable for one another. Part of being holy means we do what we say we’ll do. By keeping our word, the words are instilled with holiness. And in so doing, we become truthful and trustworthy. These are aspirational traits incumbent upon all people, not the least of whom are our leaders.