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Vows and Oaths–the Israeli Dream edition

Note: These were my notes for Parshat Mattot-Maasei.  The spoken version rarely coincides with what I wrote, but it should give you an idea of my thought process!

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

Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the LORD has commanded:

אִישׁ֩ כִּֽי־יִדֹּ֨ר נֶ֜דֶר לַֽHashem אֽוֹ־הִשָּׁ֤בַע שְׁבֻעָה֙ לֶאְסֹ֤ר אִסָּר֙ עַל־נַפְשׁ֔וֹ לֹ֥א יַחֵ֖ל דְּבָר֑וֹ כְּכָל־הַיֹּצֵ֥א מִפִּ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה׃

If a man makes a vow to the LORD 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.

 

Our parsha opens with these sacred words.  The rabbis are very concerned about vows and oaths.  They strongly discourage us from taking them, noting in the Talmud that the Nazir, like Samson, the one who refuses hair cuts and wine, must offer a sin offering at the end of his vow.  The following verses detail how women’s vows are limited; that fathers and husbands can annul their daughters’ and spouses’ vows.  While patriarchal and seemingly sexist, it shows a deep discomfort with the concept of vows themselves.

 

While in other weeks, I have spoke about the concept of shalom bayit, of peace in the home, and how that might seem to occasionally supercede complete honesty; the arc of our tradition shows us over and over again that words matter.  Unlike many of our politicians who seem not to know truth if it smacks them in the face, who make campaign promises they have no intention of keeping, our Torah teaches us that our word must be true.

 

Words are incredibly powerful.  According to Bershit, it is with words that the Holy One created this world.  There are Talmudic stories of people who throw themselves in fiery furnaces to avoid embarrassing another person with their words.  There are many books on Lashon Hara and Motzi Shem Ra, discouraging us from gossip or even sharing painful truths about one another–words are powerful.  All these books show us that even a flippant comment can be dangerous to the wellbeing of others–I know I can be guilty of this!

 

I have been told that in the diamond district, many deals are sealed with a handshake and a “Mazel and Brocha”.  No contract need be signed, because the trust in that community is so strong, the word of one Jew to another is inviolable.  While I cannot attest to the reliability of those deals, I have heard that these words are stronger than any contract.  Is the same true for us?
This week we conclude the wanderings in the wilderness.  Next week we read from Devarim, as Moshe Rabbenu will help us be sure of our commands before we enter the land.  The parsha opens with concerns about vows, with concerns about words and their power.  As we prepare to enter Israel, we are envisioning a perfect society.  As such we are building it peacefully with a reminder of the importance of the truth!  We must be honest!

What are you learning?


Every Thursday morning we study the liturgy of our people. Whether we meet in my office or the conference room, we find new insights into the services-and practice our Hebrew.

When are you going to join us?

Every day is an opportunity to learn Torah, to learn about the world around us, to learn about the meanings of our lives.

Your Torah influences mine. Your learning helps me grow. I need your help!

How do we soar?

The Blue Angels flying over my house during the 2017 NY Air Show

Some weeks just knock you for a loop. This week I found myself in the ER, in pretty terrible pain. Family members had major medical procedures, kids were sick. In between moaning on the couch, I officiated at three different funerals this week. One I had to ask for help–I just couldn’t move.

How do we know when to ask for help and when we can fight through the pain? While it is a judgement call, I see Parshat Pinchas offering us a little help. Pinchas is most well known because of a particularly violent act. He took justice into his hands and killed two people who were flagrantly violating communal and Gd-given laws. When the parshiot were divided, this act was separated from the parsha that bears his name. The rabbis were uncomfortable including it there. Instead, the parsha opens with a ceremony around his covenant of peace, a peace that is not perfect, because of the violence he had committed.

Our tradition believes in the rule of law–but this rule includes the right to a fair trial. Too often we hear stories of vigilante justice, of someone who took the law into his or her own hands. That is a tragedy for all involved–both for the one who tried to bring justice and the one who was harmed. Our American system works when we all have trust in it. For that to work, we must all believe we have a fair stake, a fair shot.

When everyone has opportunity to live their lives, to not be afraid, then we are truly making progress. Then, we can all soar!

Pinchas’ mistake was not asking for help. When he took matters into his own hands, he did not give the community time to act together. Maybe it was the right thing to do, but it wasn’t the right way to do it. The criminals deserved a fair trial. Pinchas denied that to them.

In our own lives, how often do we ask for help when we need it? How often do we wait until we absolutely have no other choice?

I know that I am guilty of this.  I frequently do things myself that I should delegate.  The personal events of this week remind me that we ALL need help.  None of us can act alone.  That’s what it means to be part of a community.  That’s how we can soar.