Shabbat-Table Talks: Mattot-Mas'ei

By: Rabbi Ralph Tawil <tawil@bezeqint.net>

[This week's Table Talks is dedicated in honor of Moe & Linda Maleh by Abie & Sabrina Maleh.]

Value: Keeping your word. Living in society requires us to occasionally give our word, that is, to make a promise or commitment. Our word is serious and should be taken seriously by us. We should think very carefully before we give our word or make a commitment. Even when we take our word seriously there are times when, due to unforeseen circumstances, keeping our commitment would lead to violating other values. In such situations, there is even a way out of the most serious vow.

Context: Our perasha speaks about the laws concerning oaths. The person who makes a vow usually forbids himself things that are normally permitted. Alternatively, the person might make a vow to offer sacrifices. Expand this topic to the very important value of keeping your word in the realm of human relations.

Text I: Numbers 30:2-3

Now Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying: This is the word that the Lord has commanded: (Any) man who vows a vow to the Lord or swears a sworn-oath, to bind himself by a binding obligation: he is not to desecrate his word, according to all that goes out of his mouth, he is to do.

The Torah speaks in terms of not "desecrating" your word (this is a very good translation of the Hebrew word "yahhel"). The understanding is that your word is sacred and that by not following through on your word, your words become no longer sacred. What is "sacred" about your words? (Sincere words reflect our inner thoughts. When we make a commitment or vow with our words, we should consider the vow as something very holy and serious, as if we were speaking to God.)

What would happen if we make many promises that we did not keep? (People would stop believing us, even when we are telling the truth. Your word and commitment lose their meaning. They no longer reflect your inner thought. By making vows and breaking them, you undermine the uniquely human quality of communication through speech.)

Text II: Deuteronomy 23:22-24 (SB)

When you vow a vow to the Lord your God, you are not to delay paying it, indeed, the Lord your God will require, yes, require it of you, and it shall be (reckoned) a sin in you. But if you hold back from vowing, it shall not be (considered) a sin in you. What issues from your lips you are to keep, and you are to do as you vowed to the Lord your God, willingly, as you promised with your mouth.

When should we make a promise, and when should we refrain from making one? (We should consider whether we have the intention or the ability to carry it out. We make a promise when we want to strengthen our commitment to what we are saying. We should always make sure that we have the will and the way to carry out our commitments before we make them.

These verses suggest the possibility of not vowing at all, in order to remain sinless. Megillat Qohelet mentions a similar idea, namely that we should be very careful before speaking.

Keep your mouth from being rash, and let not your throat be quick to bring forth speech before God. For God is in heaven and you are on earth; that is why your words should be few… When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. For He has no pleasure in fools; what you vow, fulfill. It is better not to vow at all than to vow and not fulfill. (Qohelet 5:1-4)

This last verse seems obvious. The Talmud debates the question of whether it is better to vow and fulfill or not to vow at all. You can open this debate to the table in terms of promises. Ask: Is it better to make a promise and keep it, or not to make a promise at all? The sides of the debate are that making the promise might cause you to expend extra effort in fulfilling it. However, making a promise also entails the risk of not being able to fulfill it.

The Talmudic debate is based on the verse, "It is better not to vow at all than to vow and not fulfill."

Better than this and that is not to vow at all, the words of R. Meir. R. Yehuda says: better than this and that is to vow and to fulfill the vow.

Is keeping our word the "most important" value? Are there some situations, due to unforeseen circumstances that we have to go back on our word?

The Torah describes some of the circumstances that relate to a woman’s vow. The woman in the ancient society was subservient to the male head of the family, whether he is her father or her husband. If she made a vow that they did not like they had the right to annul her vow. The value of domestic harmony overrides the value of keeping your vows.

The Oral Tradition has recognized that sometimes, unforeseen circumstances arise that prevent the vow’s fulfillment. In those cases, the Oral Tradition allows for the vow’s annulment. One cannot just ignore the vow. Rather an annulment must be carried out. [The custom of "Hatarat Nedarim" should be explained in a way that emphasizes the importance of speech. One cannot simply ignore the vows one has made. If they cannot be fulfilled, they must be annulled.]

For the more advanced group:

What is the connection between the beginning of Parashat Mattot, which speaks about fulfilling one’s vows, and the end of Parasha Mattot that speaks about the story of the tribes who request to inherit their portion of the land on the eastern side of the Jordan river? (Answer: They make a commitment that they will fight with the rest of Israel until they conquer their land before settling in the eastern side of the Jordan. They completely fulfill this commitment - see Joshua 22).

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