quotations are taken from the Complete Jewish Bible, translation by
David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., unless otherwise
Let’s begin with the opening blessing for the Torah:
"Baruch atah YHVH, Eloheynu, Melech ha-‘Olam,
asher bachar banu m’kol ha-amim,
v’natan lanu eht Torah-to.
Baruch atah YHVH, noteyn ha-Torah.
(Blessed are you, O’ LORD, our God, King of the Universe,
you have selected us from among all the peoples,
and have given us your Torah.
Blessed are you, LORD, giver of the Torah.
This is Parashat Mattot. From here until the ending of B'midbar (Numbers), the subject of Tribes is in full view. HaShem is preparing the desert-weary people for entering into their long-awaited inheritance. After 40 years of wandering under the divine judging hand of the Almighty, coupled with over 400 years in physical, mental, and (in every way) spiritual bondage in a foreign land, the descendants of Avraham are finally ready to have a land of their own!Before the passage delves into the physical Land the Torah portion addresses the vow (Heb: neder), and the oath (Heb: sh'vuah), so that is where I will make some observations. I will comment on the Land in the final parashah (called Masa'ei [Stages])
The spoken word can be powerful. In the case of the Creation account, the Holy One spoke the very universe into existence! The familiar phrase, "And God said..." can be found numerous times in B'resheet chapter one, emphasizing the importance of spoken words. In this particular case, nothing is more powerful than the spoken (or written, for that matter) Word of ADONAI Tzva'ot (LORD of Hosts).
The rabbis teach that man, as the created image (Heb: tzelem) of HaShem, we have incredible power in our speech! The Torah also teaches on this power that resides within the tongue of a man. In truth, the Scriptures are replete with verses about the tongue of man. I shall single out two of my favorite passages:
"Come, children, listen to me: I will teach you the fear of ADONAI. Which of you takes pleasure in living? Who wants a long life to see good things? [If you do,] keep your tongue form eviland your lips from deceiving talk; turn from evil, and do good; seek peace, go after it!" (Tehillim [Psalms] 34:12-15)
And from the B'rit Chadashah (Renewed Covenant, i.e., New Testament):
"Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. If we put the bits into the horses' mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh." (Ya'akov [James] 3:1-12, NASV)
Here in our Torah portion, Moshe gives instructions from the tongue of HaShem (no pun intended) as to what some certain vows and oaths entail. I won't go into the details of each vow, but I will make a correction to a common misunderstanding related to these passages.
In the Torah portion, Moshe clearly allows for vows and oaths to be taken by individuals. This, by the way, also includes by context, the familiar Nazir vow spoken of at other places in the Torah. In our misunderstanding of Torah concepts, we sometimes see a contradiction of this passage with a well-known phrase spoken by Yeshua in the B'rit Chadashah. Our passage in question is Mattityahu (Matthew) 5:31-37 and the setting is Yeshua's own halakhah (manner of Torah interpretation involving practical application) on what is known as the Beatitudes.
"Again, ye have heard that it has been said to the ancients, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt render to the Lord what thou hast sworn. But I say unto you, Do not swear at all; neither by the heaven, because it is [the] throne of God; nor by the earth, because it is [the] footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, because it is [the] city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your word be Yea, yea; Nay, nay; but what is more than these is from evil." (Matt. 5:33-37, Darby Version)
From a cursory reading of Yeshua's statement, he appears to be contradicting what Moshe has been teaching the people all along. In fact, to strengthen this posit, Yeshua's cryptic statement, "You have heard it said..." dots his halakhah all the way through chapter 5. He is obviously trying to counter some sort of false teaching here, but is it the written Torah of his Father that he is challenging?
A proper hermeneutic (biblical interpretive viewpoint) starts with this all-important truth: Scripture cannot contradict Scripture. There is simply no way to correctly harmonize the text if we allow for one passage to contradict another. In our particular example here in Mattityahu, Yeshua clearly states that we should not swear at all. What is he really saying?
His teaching is an admonition to uphold the validity of one's word, even to the simple form of a "yes" or a "no". This is made clear by his closing remarks to his listening audience (verse 37). In other words, far from abolishing the importance or application of oaths and vows, he is actually strengthening the bond that goes into effect once a person places himself under such obligations. To be sure, his halakhah centers on the fact that a simple "yes" or "no" actually carries the same weight as a more complicated vow or oath.
To make this explanation more clear, we must understand his statement, "Do not swear at all", to be a prohibition, not against taking vows or oaths, but a prohibition against perjuring oneself. Do not make vows or oaths lightly or in vanity! If you swear to something, see to it that you carry out your word! Even to the simple form of your common, everyday "yes" and "no". This is the heart of Yeshua's teaching here, which strongly upholds the truest intent of what Moshe was also teaching in the Torah.
Which one of you married couples did not undertake an exchanging of vows to be with your spouse? Who among you has been called to the witness stand of a courtroom and not made to swear to tell the truth? Do we see these as violations of Yeshua's halakhah? Of course not. Obviously, the wedding vow and the courtroom oath are taken in truthfulness, with every intent to follow through with our testimony. This is exactly what Yeshua is teaching here. He wanted to contradict the rampant practice of swearing falsely or flippantly. The Talmud also backs up Yeshua's interpretation:
In the Mishna [Pirke Avot 1:17], Shimon the son of Rabban Gamliel said: "All of my days I was raised amongst the sages and I didn't find anything better for the body than silence."
What does this statement of Shimon mean? In agreement with Yeshua, it is better to say nothing at all, than to swear and promise false words.
Moving on from vows (but not from the topic of the tongue), I want to close by sharing an interesting story also found in the Talmud. The story revolves around the power of the spoken word, and what comes about when we fail to give a good word of testimony to one who really needs to hear it. The story may or may not be factual, but that is not the point. The sages were intending to convey a particular message through the medium of fable and folklore, and to that end, the intended lesson would be preserved from generation to generation. The concept explained here, as enumerated by Rabbi Yisroel Ciner of Project Genesis: Torah on the Information Superhighway [http://www.torah.org], is that each of us has within the very mouth that HaShem gave unto us, "the opportunity to lift the earth up to the heavens."
Now what do you suppose would've happened to Reuven if Rav Chaim had not spoken up?
"D'var Torah", with Union for Reform Judaism
Just as the Israelites are poised to enter the Promised Land, the Torah presents us with a group of Israelites who ask Moses for permission to settle in the land outside of Israel. Members of the tribes of Gad and Reuben ask to be allowed to build shelters for their flocks and safe cities for their children in the land that has already been conquered. Moses at first likens these men to the scouts who brought discouraging reports when they returned from a mission to view the Promised Land; He fears that they will dishearten and weaken the resolve of those who were following God's command to cross over into the land on the other side of the Jordan that is meant for them. Moses questions them about what seems to be a lack of commitment and courage: Will they allow others to go forward and fight while they stay behind tending to the well-being of their cattle and their children?
Challenged to consider their responsibility to God and their fellow Israelites, the Gadites and Reubenites reassure Moses. Although they prefer to establish homes outside the Land, they will be chalutzim (the plural of chalutz, a word translated in modern times as "pioneers" but rendered as "fighters" in the biblical context). The Gadites and Reubenites promise that they will cross into the Land and offer all of their help to their brethren until the other Israelites are secure in their new homes. They recognize this as their duty even as they acknowledge that by living outside the Land they forfeit their right to claim a part of it as their own. In essence, they may still be Israelites, but they will not be Israelis. When they make this commitment, Moses accedes to their proposal.
We Jews who choose to live outside of Israel, pursuing our livelihoods and seeking to build secure homes for our children in other lands, may sometimes imagine having to answer a question posed to us similar to the one posed to the tribes of Gad and Reuben:
"Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?"
Some of us may ask ourselves similar questions when other U.S. citizens accept personal risk, serving in the armed forces on behalf of our nation, while we remain behind. The Torah offers us a compassionate and potentially useful response. Moses is at first concerned that the readiness of the Gadites and Reubenites to settle outside the Land will demoralize those who are fulfilling the mitzvah of securing and living in the land God set aside for them. Moses is reassured when the Gadites and Reubenites say they will do everything in their power to support those entering the Land and will not cease to offer their assistance until the Israelites are secure. Understanding this, Moses tells them to go to build homes for their children and shelters for their herds. So may we be reassured that although we may have not chosen to settle in the Land of Israel, we too can be chalutzim, pioneers for the Land. Perhaps the shift in the meaning of the word from "shock-fighters" to "first settlers" may allow us to expand the definition to include those who move forward boldly to offer help. We can serve as chalutzim when we move forward boldly to publicly offer our optimism and encouragement to those who choose to live in Israel and by providing every kind of support possible to them until they are secure. Like those Gadites and Reubenites, we who choose to raise our children in other lands are not Israelis, but we are all Jews with a deep and abiding tie to the faith and history of those who live in Israel. Perhaps we can also learn from this Torah portion the absolute importance of crossing the Jordan (or the Atlantic) on solidarity missions to spend some time at the sides of Israeli Jews as they fulfill the promise of securing and maintaining a Jewish homeland.
Not all of us are fighters and risk takers, but by providing support and encouragement, those of us who remain behind play an important part in establishing a world in which hope is not lost and in which security can one day be achieved.
The closing blessing is as follows:
"Baruch atah YHVH, Eloheynu, Melech ha-‘Olam,
asher natan lanu Toraht-emet,
v’chay-yeh o’lam nata-b’tochenu.
Baruch atah YHVH, noteyn ha-Torah.
(Blessed are you O’ LORD, our God, King of the Universe,
you have given us your Torah of truth,
and have planted everlasting life within our midst.
Blessed are you, LORD, giver of the Torah.
Torah Teacher Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy firstname.lastname@example.org