July 10th, 2021: Parashat Mattot–Masei – Sacred Words

Follow along in the AUDIO PODCAST, by clicking on the play button below, and reading along with the notes, as you listen to today's Parashat:

Numbers 30:2–36:13

In this week’s double portion of Torah readings, we cover two parashot to bring to a close the Book of Numbers.

The first portion is titled Mattot which means “tribes”, where we are first told about the seriousness of uttering vows and swearing oaths; we also read of the charge for the Children of Israel to take vengeance on the Midianites for the desecration that the Midianites brought upon Israel in Parashat Balak, Israel’s decisive victory over the Midianites, and an accounting of the plunders and spoils from the campaign; finally, we learn about the allotment of the lands east of the Jordan to the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of the tribe of Manasseh.

In the second portion, Parashat Masei, we open up to an accounting of the Children of Israel’s 42 “journeys” (or “Masei”) in the Wilderness; we then read about HaShem’s outlining of the borders of the Land that the Children of Israel were about to inherit; we learn about the 42 cities to be given to the Levites, in addition to the 6 cities of refuge, the latter which were to serve as refuges for any man who committed an unintentional killing and sought protection from the slain man’s kinsman; and finally, we read about the Tribe of Manasseh’s interest in ensuring that the inheritance of the daughters of Zelophehad remained within the tribe and was not lost to another tribe through marriage.

Yet, for today’s teaching, I want to focus specifically on the very first topic in Parashat Mattot alone – that of vows and oaths.

We open up the parashat with the words:

“Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying, ‘This is the matter that HaShem has commanded: If a man takes a vow to HaShem or swears an oath to prohibit a prohibition upon himself, he shall not profane his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do.’”(Numbers 30:2-3)

Scriptures go on to specify additional circumstances where a young woman makes a vow or oath in her father’s house or a married woman makes a vow or oath in her husband’s house, that the father or the husband have the power to nullify that vow or oath. However, if the father or husband in those circumstances hears the vow or oath and upholds it, but days later changes his mind, “he shall bear her iniquity” (30:16). So, whether it is the person making the vow or oath, or the husband or father reneging on their upholding of that vow or oath, they are liable in the event that the vow or oath is broken. Ultimately, an iniquity is committed from this, showing us just how serious the subject matter is.

If you recall, last week’s parashat ended with HaShem reminding Moses and the Children of Israel about the tamid (or “continual”) and mussaf (or “additional”) offerings, that they were never to cease. Afterward, in conclusion, HaShem said: “These shall you make for HaShem on your appointed festivals, aside from your vows and your free-will offerings, for your olah-offerings, for your meal-offerings, for your libations, and for your peace-offerings. Moses said to the Children of Israel according to everything that HaShem had commanded Moses.” (Numbers 29:39-30:1)

Ramban (R’ Moses ben Nachmanides) writes: “This section about vows comes here because Scripture has just mentioned: ‘Vows of consecration to the Most High, aside from your vows and your free will offerings for your burnt-offerings, your meal-offerings, your libations and your peace-offerings’, so Scripture says further: Besides those sacrificial vows that were mentioned, there are also “secular” vows [and oaths]; and regarding whatever comes from his mouth he is obligated to fulfill it, and to put into practice any prohibition that he established upon himself. And regarding all of them, he may not desecrate his word, but others may absolve him from it [under certain circumstances].”

So there certainly is a continuity between Parashat Pinchas and Parashat Mattot.

Another observation. At the end of last week’s parashat, it says that Moses spoke all the words to the Children of Israel as HaShem had commanded him. Yet, at the start of Parashat Mattot, it says that Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel. So, here we have that the details of the “sacrificial vows” were disseminated to the Children of Israel, but, on the surface, not the “secular vows and oaths”. How is that if it was all written in the Torah for both groups to see?

If we further evaluate the Hebrew of the verse, we see that a literal translation reads:

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־רָאשֵׁ֣י הַמַּטּ֔וֹת לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָֽה׃

“Moses spoke to the leaders of the tribes “to” “of” the Children of Israel”.

If it was translated as “of”, there would not be a “ל” (“lamed”) prefix before the word “בְנֵ֥י”-“לִ” (“b’nei”). Moreover, it can’t be “and”, otherwise there would be a “ו” (“vav”) prefix. All of that to suggest that perhaps the verse is saying that there are two concurrent messages in the ensuing verses – one for the leaders and one for the rest of the people.

Or HaChaim (R’ Chaim ibn Attar) writes: “HaShem did not want it to be written in plain sight of everyone that a vow or oath can be annulled, as this would lead the people to treat vows and oaths lightly. Therefore, HaShem in His wisdom concealed the matter, and transmitted the annulment of vows to the great men of Israel alone, for they would know and discern the various rules of annulment.” What Or HaChaim is saying is that the people were only told the concept of annulment, not the specific rules of annulment, which were only conveyed to the leaders of the tribes orally. And this makes sense as you read through all the verses on vows and oaths – you notice that there is no specificity concerning rules of annulment brought down in the Written Torah. All that the people were told is that if they wish to have a vow or oath annulled, they should approach the tribe leaders to see if it is possible. The ultimate takeaway here is that vows and oaths are not to be treated lightly, even if they are categorized as “secular” vows and oaths.

Ok, so I’ve used the term “secular” vows and oaths several times so far. What is meant by “secular”? Let’s re-read verse 3: “If a man takes a vow to HaShem or swears an oath to prohibit a prohibition upon himself, he shall not profane his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do”. By “secular”, all that is meant is any vow or oath that has to do with mundane, daily matters… that are made before HaShem. A vow refers to a pledge regarding a positive act – e.g. that one vowed to go to a certain place or to perform some action. Swearing an oath, on the other hand, corresponds to a pledge of refraining from an action – e.g. refraining from hanging around a certain person or being in a certain place.

So, why is so much weight added to making vows and swearing oaths, especially if it just has to do with “mundane” matters? It ultimately has to do with what is meant by the vow or oath “being made before HaShem”.

Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah (22:1) reads: “Regarding this verse it is written, ‘You shall swear "As HaShem lives!" in truth, in justice and in righteousness’ (Jeremiah 4:2). The Holy One Blessed is He said to Israel: ‘Do not think that it is permitted for you to swear by My Name. Rather, even if truthfully, you are not permitted to swear by My Name unless you possess all of the following qualities, "HaShem, your God, shall you fear, Him shall you serve, to Him shall you cleave, and in His Name shall you swear" (Deuteronomy 10:20). The verse is describing the qualities that a person must possess in order to swear using God's Name: HaShem, your God, you shall fear – this teaches us that to be permitted to swear, you must be like those who were described as people who fear God, namely, Abraham, Job and Joseph: Abraham as it is written "For now I know that you are a God-fearing man" (Genesis 22:12); Job, it is written, “A wholesome and upright man, who fears God" (Job 1:8); Joseph, it is written "I fear God" (Genesis 42:18). This is the import of the words, HaShem, your God, you shall fear.”

Now, what is “fear of God”? The immediate thought that comes to mind is a fear of retribution, a fear of the wrath of God falling upon us, just as we fear the unknown, the unseen, the danger that lurks in dark places in this world. This, however, is not true fear of God.

Ramchal (R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) wrote in his book “The Path of the Just” (Mesillat Yesharim) on the subject: Fear is awe of His exaltedness, which means that one must distance himself from transgression and refrain from sinning because of the immense glory of the Blessed One. For how can one commit a desecration – or how can the heart of one who is flesh and blood, lowly and despicable, dare do something against the will of the Creator, blessed and exalted be His Name! This type of fear is not very easily attainable; it will only emerge when one harnesses knowledge and understanding to contemplate the exaltedness of the Blessed One and the inferior state of man. All of these are the results of a thoughtful and intelligent mind, and it is this type of fear which causes a person to become embarrassed and tremble when standing before his Master in prayer or in any form of worship. This is the most exemplary form of fear of the Eternal for which the eminently pious were praised.”

Powerful words from the Ramchal on the subject. When we don’t recognize HaShem’s Supreme Sovereignty over all of Creation, and our relative insignificance as frail, mortal, imperfect human beings, we are not living in fear and awe of Him. Ramchal goes on to write: Once it becomes clear to a person that, wherever he may be, he is standing before the Divine Presence, he will automatically be filled with fear and trepidation – concerning any faulty deeds he might commit, which might then not be worthy of His exalted glory. This is what they said (Pirkei Avot 2:1): ‘Know what is above you: an observing eye, and a listening ear, and all of your deeds are being inscribed in the book.’”

The fact of the matter is that every word that is uttered out of our mouths goes before HaShem. Every single word. We can say the same about our thoughts, but our thoughts do not take action in this world, but rather the words that uttered from our lips. If all of our words go before HaShem, does that not mean that we should treat every vow or oath uttered from our lips, whether actively with HaShem in mind or not, as if they are all going before Him? Let’s take that a step further. If all of our words go before HaShem, does that not mean that we should treat every word uttered from our lips as if they are all going before Him?

King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 5:1-6: “Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter a word before God; for God is in Heaven and you are on Earth, so let your words be few. For a dream comes from much concern, and foolish talk from many words. When you make a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for He has no liking for fools; what you vow, pay. Better that you do not vow at all than that you vow and not pay. Let not your mouth bring guilt on your flesh, and do not tell the messenger that it was an error. Why should God be angered by your speech and destroy the work of your hands? In spite of all dreams, futility, and idle chatter, rather: Fear God!

As King Solomon says, it is better for our words to be few. In this world, we can see how our words have the power to create or destroy… to build or to tear down… to give life or to give death. We can see the repercussions of our words on those around us through the blessings we utter or the curses we spew out. What we do not see, however, are how these words go forth in the spiritual worlds.

In the Book of Matthew, our Master Yeshua had much to say on the subject (Matthew 5:33-37): “Again, you have heard that it was said to the first ones, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but you shall perform your oaths to HaShem.’ Yet I say to you, you shall not swear any oath – not by Heaven, for it is the Throne of God, nor by the Earth, for it is His footstool, nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Not even by the life of your head shall you swear, since you are unable to turn one hair black or white. Instead, let your words by ‘yes, yes; no, no’; anything beyond this is from the evil one.” Yeshua literally reiterated all that we have spoken about thus far!

Again, in Matthew 23:16-22, Yeshua spoke, this time in rebuke of the Pharisees: “How terrible for you, blind leaders, who say, ‘If one swears by the Sanctuary, it means nothing, but if he swears by the gold in the Sanctuary, he is liable.’ Blind fools! For which is greater: the gold or the Sanctuary that sanctifies the gold? And you say, ‘If one swears by the Altar, it means nothing, but if he swears by the sacrifice on the Altar, he is liable.’ Blind fools! For which is greater: the sacrifice or the Altar that sanctifies the sacrifice? So whoever swears by the Altar swears both by it and by all that is upon it, and whoever swears by the Sanctuary swears both by it and by the One who dwells in it, and whoever swears by Heaven swears both by the Throne of God and by the One who sits on it.”

We have been warned. We are so accustomed to speak loosely without watching our words. We make vows we seldom keep. We utter oaths to desist in a certain activity that is not good for us in the attempt to overcome it, and fail. Sure, we can tell ourselves that we are just human and prone to failure, but that in itself is a sorry excuse for not taking the responsibility to watch every word that is uttered from our mouths. As I said earlier, I believe this goes beyond just vows and oaths to encompass every word that we utter from our mouths – as it is all done in the presence of HaShem! If we claim to be Children of the Master of the Universe, our Creator, our Sovereign King… if we claim to fear Him with all of our beings, we certainly do not mean it if we can’t control the mere words that come out of our mouths!

Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the fact that vows and oaths play a role in our lives, so it’s impossible to say we will no longer make them. We need them, whether to better our own lives – by trying to overcome problem areas in our lives, or to make promises to others – whether in relationships like in marriage or in business. What we need to recognize is that vows and oaths are, for better use of the word, sacred in the ears of HaShem. We are not intended to fully understand the complete ramifications of why, especially beyond the scope of what we can see and hear in this world, just that they are, and that we are doing damage when we nullify our vows and oaths, whether to ourselves, or to others, but more importantly, in the presence of HaShem. We need to attain a true fear of HaShem throughout our entire beings – to recognize that HaShem is all around us, always watching, always listening. Before we open our mouths to speak, we must think through and evaluate every word before it leaves our tongues. As Yeshua said, “Let your words by ‘yes, yes; no, no’; anything beyond this is from the evil one.” That simple, right? I know, probably not for those who love to talk. Just keep in mind that our words have an impact in this material world, and an even greater, immeasurable impact in the spiritual worlds. May we govern our tongues with the fear of HaShem so that our hearts are pure, and our vows and oaths are concrete. Amen.

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