D’Var Torah: August 5, 2016

Shabbat Shalom Friends,

This week we will be reading from the double portion Matot-Masei. They are the last two portions in the book of Numbers. Following this we will begin reading the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ final words to the Israelites before they head into the land of Canaan without him.

However, before we get there, Matot begins with the following statement, “If a man makes a vow to Adonai or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” (Numbers 30:3)

The Hebrew word for vow is neder. We know this term well from Kol Nidre (“all these vows”). Vows are viewed as being so important in Jewish tradition that there is a whole tractate, a whole book of the Babylonian Talmud dedicated to the laws surrounding vows.

Part of the rationale behind our tradition’s focus on vows is the premise that the world was created through speech. For example, “And God said, ‘Let there be light, and there was light…” Therefore we have always firmly believed that words have power.

I remember being taught that old maxim: ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ Of course, as we know, this is simply not true. Instead we find that words often cut much deeper than sticks and stones ever could.

But going back to vows, Judaism, generally speaking, is against vows as a form of self-sacrifice. It is also against hasty or rash vows or promises. Instead, it reminds us again and again to be careful with our words. We should strive to avoid speaking carelessly or flippantly.

However, in today’s modern technological age it is so easy to type something into the ether that is the Internet without any real thought about the potential damage or harm our words can cause. The anonymity of self-expression today is just as dangerous as a hastily spoken vow.

We are compelled by tradition to watch our words carefully. We should also be leery of those who speak quickly out of hate, anger, frustration, or the like. For as we know from our teachings, what is said cannot be unsaid. This does not mean we should not speak or that we should not make promises; instead it means we should think before we speak, and implore others to do the same.

For though the world was created through speech, it can also be destroyed by speech. If we learn anything from parashat Matot, let us, in the words of author Maxine Hong Kingston, “in a time of destruction, create something.”

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff