VOWS & PROMISES.
The portion begins with a whole section about making vows. From the halachic point of view, the making of vows is a major issue. The halachic analyses of the Kol Nidre with which Yom Kippur commences could take up a library (as could the literary and historical aspects of the subject).
The underlying concept is the importance of how you use words. The capacity of speech is one of the great marks of distinction between man and the rest of Creation.
Yes, other species have their means of communication, and Martin Buber points out that even silence is communication. One example is what the English language calls “companionable silence”.
The careless and over-profuse use of words is one of our worst problems. The Midrash quotes the sentence from this parashah,
“A person shall not break his word” (Num. 30:8),
and goes on,
“for one knows not when his time (of death) shall come”.
What you say can wreak immense damage, and you might, God forbid, die before you have had a chance to repair what you have done.
There is a saying,
“Everyone thought he was a fool, and when he opened his mouth they had their proof”.
Being a fool in your speech is bad enough, but it’s worse if you let your words betray a spark of evil.
HEADS OF THE TRIBES
From the opening words of the sidra, “And Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes (mattot) of the Children of Israel” (Num. 30:2), we gain a glimpse of the management of the Israelite people.
This seems to be what is implied in Rashi’s commentary on the verse. It also fits in with the Targum’s subtle change in the text: instead of Moses speaking *to* (“el”) the leaders, Targum Onkelos says that he spoke *with* (“im”) them. Voice technology had not been invented, so there was no way in which Moses’ voice could carry loudly and clearly enough for every Israelite to hear his words. The heads of the tribes were therefore the leader’s conduit.
He gathered the tribal leaders together, imparted to them the Divine message, and charged them to pass it on to their own tribes. The procedure was then repeated within each tribe, so that the heads of the tribes assembled their deputies and told them what they had to convey to the people, and thus there built up a whole chain of command. This seems to fill out what is said in Lev. 17:2 and other passages where Moses is described as speaking to the whole people.
This method was utilised centuries later when it came time for Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah, to convey mishnaic teaching to the people. He charged a corps of specially endowed individuals who had the gift of remembering things verbatim and told them what to remember and pass on to the people. In this fashion the Mishnah was published – but the “publication” was in oral form and only later was its content recorded in writing.
WHEN A DIPLOMAT SAYS YES
Diplomacy is a very important thing. Being diplomatic in your dealings with other people helps to ensure there will be peace in society.
Diplomacy as a profession is also an important part of international relations. Indeed when I was very young I thought I might like to be a diplomat myself. I might even have been good at it. What changed my mind was that being a teacher of Torah came to seem a more satisfying challenge.
I have since come to know quite a number of diplomats. Most of them I found very stimulating people who served their country well. And on their behalf I have often been affronted by an old saying about diplomats: “When a diplomat says ‘yes’, it means ‘maybe’; when he says ‘maybe’, it means ‘no’; when he says ‘no’, he is no diplomat”.
Why am I affronted? Because the language of negotiation seems to require a certain amount of fluidity. Diplomatic ambiguity has its place, but it has its limits. And in ordinary day to day speech the better rule has to be, as the sages put it, “Your ‘yes’ should be ‘yes’; your ‘no’ should be no’”.
The Torah emphasises this lesson when it says in today’s sidra,
“If a person makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word. He must carry out all that crosses his lips” (Num. 30:3).
Notice what the verse says. Not merely “he shall not break his word”, but “he shall not desecrate his word”. Words, especially promises, are holy. If you do not mean to live by them, you should keep quiet and say nothing.
How often do people fall out because someone made a promise and then forgot all about it, or did not really mean it seriously? How often do people say “yes”, when they mean “maybe” or even “no”, and then wonder why others do not trust them any more?
The verse, of course, speaks of promises to God. In a sense that’s an even bigger problem. You might think twice about promises to other people because you know there may be a comeback if you fail to perform. But God? So often we exploit His divine good nature. We say, “God will understand”. (As Voltaire put it, “God will forgive. That’s His job!”) Question: why should God understand, in the sense of writing off anything we promise Him as automatically worthless?
That’s why it was clever of Judaism to invent Kol Nidrei, which asks Divine forbearance just in case we are carried away with emotion and promise more than we should. But we shouldn’t exploit Kol Nidrei either. Before making promises we should think, and think again. Promises should not become a joke.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Blog: http://www.oztorah.com