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Parashat Matot-Masei - 5773

My friends,

This week, we read the double portion of Matot-Masei, concluding the book of Numbers. The Children of Israel are in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan River near the city of Jericho. They are about to enter into battle against the Moabites and the Midianites, and then prepare to take possession of the Promised Land. In addition, G-d is giving Moses some of the people's final instructions and teachings, such as what the borders of the new land will be, how the land is to be apportioned among the tribes, the establishment of Levitical cities (where the priests and the Levites shall live among the people), the establishment of so-called 'cities of refuge' where a person who has killed another person may flee to, and so on.

I would like to focus on a teaching at the beginning of Matot concerning vows and oaths. In this context, vows and oaths are promises a person makes to G-d. Is making a vow or an oath a good thing? Consider Numbers, chapter 30, verse 3:

"If a man makes a vow to the L-rd 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."

A promise made to G-d must be kept without fail (although G-d makes certain exceptions later in the parasha). But how good is man in general at keeping his word. How many people, for instance, promise to exercise more at the beginning of the year, but then slack off as the months go by? In general, our sages tend to agree with this assessment of man's nature. They say that, while vows are not, in general, prohibited, they are neither encouraged, for it is just as easy for man to break a promise made to G-d as it is for man to break a promise made to his/her fellow man, regardless of how sincere the person was when the promise was made.

Another point: Why this instruction from G-d regarding vows at this point in time? Consider the fact that the men were about to go into battle. A lot of them were probably in fear for their lives and well-being. Their wives were afraid of becoming widows. That is exactly the time when many people turn to G-d ("G-d, if you get me out of this, I promise etc., etc., etc."). But as long as the people kept faith and adhered to G-d's laws and commandments, G-d would provide for them. There was no need to promise anything above and beyond. Hence, this teaching, with the hope that it would keep the people from making unnecessary promises.

So much of what we learn about being Jews has to do with proper speech - between man and G-d, as well as between each other. It's part of what distinguishes our people. It is an important lesson to learn if we are to live a happy and peaceful life.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bernie Miller
Co-President, Sharei Chesed Congregation