D’var Torah for Friday, June 29, 2022

This week we will be concluding the book of Numbers with the double portion of parashat Matot-Masei. In some ways then, it makes sense to end the book Numbers with an emphasis on vows, as this was a time before contracts and legal agreements. One’s word was one’s bond, and therefore these utterances were vital to establishment of a sacred and ethical community.

This is why vows, or nedarim in Hebrew, were something taken quite seriously by our ancestors. There is a whole tractate in the Talmud that are dedicated to the promises that we make both to God and to each other. As a matter of fact, Kol Nidre, perhaps the most recognized melody and custom in Jewish tradition due to it taking place at the start of Yom Kippur, is really a legal treatise on vows.

Reflective of this, our tradition is very leery of oaths. It does not countenance the issuance of casual promises. Instead, when one makes a vow to another, or to God, it is viewed as a sacred and holy agreement.

Our Torah portion begins with the phrase “zeh ha’davar,” which means literally, “this is the thing.” According to the medieval commentator, Rashi, this curious phrasing gives permission to revoke one’s vows. So why then, if a vow is a sacred and holy agreement, can one go back on their word?

According to rabbinic understanding, if one made a vow, they would feel compelled to fulfill it, even if it was made rashly or it was inappropriate. This story is best illustrated in the book of Judges Chapter 11. In it, Jephthah made a promise to God that he would sacrifice the next thing he encountered if God led him to victory. Of course, the next thing he encountered was not a thing at all, but his daughter.

This is all a round-about way of saying that our tradition places a lot of emphasis on our words and the intent behind those words. We should always strive to be careful in what we say and how we say it be it the spoken word, the written word, in email, or in text, or in tweet or in social media. Yes, a poorly phrased or rushed vow can be revoked, but not from the memory of those who hear it. So instead of speaking rashly or harshly, we are reminded to be thoughtful and deliberate in what we say and in what we write.

The very act of creation starts with, “In the beginning of creation … God said, ‘let there be light …’” (Gen 1:1-3) From this passage we learn that words can create. Words can also destroy. May we always strive to create and bless with our words, especially in this difficult and challenging time.

Matot-Masei ends with the vision of the Israelites about to enter into the land of Canaan to establish a new nation. The vision of this nation was built, in part, on the vision of compassionate communication. A vision that we pray will one day come to fruition. In the meantime, we can do our best to emulate this this vision in how we choose to express our words.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff