“And Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes, saying, ‘This is the thing that G-d commanded. A man who makes a vow to G-d or who swears an oath to deny himself cannot violate his word. All that comes out of his mouth, he must do.” [Numbers. 30:2-4]
We often can understand the meaning of a text by examining its nuances. The beginning of our weekly Torah portion Maatot is no exception.
First, why is Moses relaying this commandment to the tribal leaders when it pertains to all of the people? Second, does the commandment only apply when somebody is vowing in G-d’s name? That doesn’t fit with the next verse: “All that comes out of his mouth, he must do.”
The rest of the Parsha gives us plenty of clues. Moses orders war on Midian, who sent their daughters to seduce the Israelites and make them serve idols. The Israelite army is small — only 12,000, a pittance compared to the size and population of Midian. But not everybody can avenge G-d’s honor. They must be pure and free of the sin inculcated by Midian.
But even this spiritually elite force ran into problems. At one point, Moses visited the battlefield and found that the Israelite troops have not followed G-d’s command to take revenge on the Midianites, who caused the death of 24,000 Jews.
“And Moses was angry with the commanders of the forces, the heads of thousands and the heads of hundreds who came from the army to the war.” [Numbers. 31:5-6]
Shlomo Ben Yitzhaki, known as 11th Century sage Rashi, comments in stellar brevity the reason Moses went to the military brass.
“To teach us that the troubles of the generation hang on the prominent people, because they have the power to protest.”
Now, we’re getting warm.
Moses’s appeal to the tribal heads was stark: Like their constituents, they, too, must be committed to their promises, vows or just plain words. If they tell the people something, they cannot shrug off implementation. Indeed, they set the norms for honesty or its absence. They can’t hide behind the adage, “That’s politics.” Because when our leaders lie or cheat what’s left behind is a nation in rot — where everybody is out for himself.
We see that later in the Parsha. Weeks before they are to cross into the Land of Canaan, two tribes decide that they’re not going to cross the Jordan River. They had become immensely wealthy from the cattle captured from Midian and determinef that the eastern bank of the Jordan would be ideal for their flock.
Moses was stunned. His words were poignant:
“Your brothers are going to war and you will stay here?” [Numbers. 32:6]
The leaders of Gad and Reuven might have seemed to represent their newly-rich constituents. But at what price: Their secession from the rest of Israel? And why? Because the wealth of these tribes surpasses every consideration?
The Midrash says that three things were created which could open up all the world for its recipients — intelligence, heroism and wealth. But there is a caveat: These gifts must come from the heavens and stem from the power of Torah. “But if heroism and wealth come from flesh and blood, they’re nothing.”
Gad and Reuven were politically savvy and quick to assuage Moses. They said they would fight along the front lines in Canaan and wait until the land is conquered, apportioned and settled. This would take 14 years.
But the dye was cast. The only reason to live on the eastern side of the Jordan was to become rich. Greed marked the only bind among the desert inhabitants. One fellow conquered city after city around Gilead, today northwestern Jordan and the Golan Heights. Violence was rife. Killings were common because everybody wanted the same thing and fast. Sounds like somebody was reading today’s newspapers, where you can learn of entire countries crumbling under the weight of alienation and hate.
And so we come back to Moses. These are his last weeks of life, and he is desperately trying to keep Israel whole and united in G-d’s mission. He might not have to convince the ordinary people of this, so his efforts focus on the leadership — those who have more of everything and nothing that lasts.