Parashat Mattot opens (Num. 30:3) with a person making a vow or swearing an oath.
Both teach the lesson of being careful with one’s words. If you utter a vow or oath you must be certain you know what you are doing and not just scatter your words to the four winds. It is better to remain silent than to say something you haven’t thought out properly.
Actually, remaining silent is good advice at all times. I knew of a senior lawyer who was a member of a community board and hardly ever opened his mouth at meetings. When he did speak it was only because he had something significant to say, and even then he was brief and to the point. Realising that his words were golden, the board sat up and took notice.
In contrast there was a communal organisation of which I was the president for a time, and unfortunately there were a few people around the table who constantly spoke very volubly. As chairman of the meetings I waited until they stopped for breath and then firmly interposed, “Well, thank you Mrs… Now let’s move on to the next item!”
If words in general require great care and deliberation, vows especially do. Their consequences are so severe that one must be warned.
The Torah says (Deut. 23:23) that not vowing is no sin; Kohelet says (Eccl. 5:4) that it is better not to vow than to vow and not fulfil.
The Erev Yom Kippur “Kol Nidre” is an annual admonition to hold back from making vows, even if you really mean every word at the time.
SPEAKING TO THE LEADERS.
Moses expounds the laws of vows “to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel” (Num. 30:2).
We are surprised that this seems a rather limited declaration addressed to the leaders rather than a general proclamation to the people as a whole.
One possible explanation is that this was a sort of ancient microphone. Moses did not have a loud enough voice to be heard by the whole assemblage of Israel, so he gathered the tribal leaders and gave them the message.
Each leader then did the same to the elders of their own tribes, and in this way Moses’ words were imparted, published and promulgated amongst the whole Israelite camp.
This method was not limited to this specific subject but was utilised for all of Moses’ div’rei Torah.
The Ramban (Nachmanides), on the other hand, explains the procedure as intended for quite a different purpose. It was not that the people had no right to know this particular set of laws, but if the laws had been proclaimed in their entirety to the whole people there would have been questions, grumbles and complaints, and most people would have misunderstood.
Laws which give a father power to annul some of the vows uttered by a daughter are an example. Power in a husband to annul some of his wife’s vows is another instance. There needed to be a more nuanced way of explaining the Torah system of vows and vowing.
The leaders knew their people and could couch the message in terms appropriate to their audience.
WHERE I STOPPED.
Parashat Mass’ei – which describes the journeys and stopping places of the Children of Israel in the wilderness – reminds me of an early stage in my career when I was Religious Director of the Association for Jewish Youth in Britain.
I travelled all over the British Isles, mostly by train. Luton, Letchworth, Leicester, I visited youth clubs in all these and many other places. What I hardly ever saw was the place itself.
Yes, I got to the railway station, was met there and taken to the club, eventually got back to the station and took the last train back to London. Sometimes I fell asleep in the train and woke up with a start at Paddington or St. Pancras.
In later years I sometimes revisited the cities I had been to in my AJY days, but this time I didn’t see much of the city either. I was there as a tourist and went where the tour guides took us. Did I discover who the local people were, how they lived, what happened there in historic times, what was worth knowing about their way of life? Rarely.
That’s why every year when we read Parashat Mass’ei I am annoyed with myself. That’s why when the commentators elaborate on the Israelites’ stopping places they remind us of what happened in each place.
That’s why when one takes a tour it’s often best not to follow the organised program but to wander and watch. The things to see and remember are not the town halls, public buildings and statues, but the people.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com