Summary or Quotation?
The second verse in the parasha has Moshe telling the heads of the tribes זה הדבר, this is the matter, that Hashem spoke. Rashi comments that these words separate Moshe Rabbenu from all other prophets. While all prophets said כה אמר ה’, thus says Hashem, Moshe additionally said the words we have here.
Rashi does not elaborate; a casual reading could see him as focused on Moshe’s having other words with which to introduce his prophecies. That ignores the fact that כה אמר ה’ isn’t, by far, the only way other prophets lead into reports of Hashem’s communications with them.
It seems to me more likely that Rashi is focused on the level of confidence with which prophets report what Hashem said. For example, when he gives an example of Moshe saying כה אמר ה’, it’s Shmot 11;4, כה אמר ה’ כחצות הלילה, thus said Hashem, around midnight. Rashi there reported Chazal’s Midrashic reading that Moshe purposely fudged the time, lest Paroh’s advisers measure wrong and think the plague came before or after midnight. That makes it an example of a prediction that was less exact than it could have been.
Saying כה אמר ה’ leaves open the possibility of paraphrasing; זה הדבר implies an exact quote. Rashi, I think, was saying that while all prophets tells us what Hashem said, Moshe Rabbenu tells us exactly what Hashem said.
The Words that Nullify Vows
He then offers a second interpretation, relating the introductory words to the substance of the discussion to come. Moshe Rabbenu introduces two ways to nullify a woman’s vows; under certain circumstances her father or husband can do it, in other situations, a Torah scholar can. But they function differently—the father or husband is מפר, breaks the vow apart, the Torah scholar is מתיר, shows it is permissible to disregard it (meaning it was never actually a vow).
That sounds like a technical distinction, but one with teeth, because if either of those people were to use the wrong word, the vow would still be in full force. That is, if her father says “this vow is now permitted to you,” that has no impact, since the father’s mechanism for nullifying his adolescent (twelve to twelve and a half) daughter’s vows is הפרה, breaking, not התרה, allowing.
It’s apt that in the context of vows, where people are able to manufacture obligations or prohibitions for themselves, language is particularly important. Not only in the making of the vow, but in the rendering it null and void. זה הדבר, these are the words; language counts, and vows reminds us of just how much it can count.
Intentions Count, Too
Twice in the discussion of these rules, the Torah mentions culpability where we might not have expected it. 30;6 (and 9) speak of Hashem forgiving a woman whose father or husband nullified her vow. Since the vow didn’t count, why does she need forgiveness?
Rashi answers that the Torah is speaking of a woman who violated the vow without knowing it had been rendered invalid. He adds that if nullified vows need forgiveness, all the more so those that were still in force when they were violated. In other words, we can need forgiveness even where no violation occurred. Because she thought she was violating her oath.
Verse sixteen gives the flip side. If she is told her husband nullified the oath, but in actuality he did it more than a day after he first heard of it, his nullification doesn’t work. If she is misled into ignoring her oath, Rashi says the Torah is telling us that he’s liable. As Rashi says, it teaches us that those who cause others to misstep are held accountable.
Dedication of and to Our Leaders
At the beginning of chapter 31, Hashem tells Moshe to gather the Jews to take vengeance on the Midianim for their role in bringing disaster on the Jewish people, after which Moshe would pass away. The first Rashi to 31;3 notes that Moshe didn’t pause, even though he knew his death was tied up with undertaking this war.
In response, verse five reports וימסרו, that the Jewish soldiers were delivered, implying reluctance. Rashi understands this to express their love for Moshe, their desire to stretch out the time they have him as their leader.
There is an irony in that second Rashi, since he notes that earlier, when death wasn’t on the table, Moshe got the impression that the people were ready to stone him. Once they heard that his death was dependent on their going to war, they resisted going.
That two-sidedness seems to come up in many relationships, which we sometimes treat badly when we have no thought it might end but then long to keep for as long as possible once the end is near. That’s how the Jews treated Moshe; he, in response, did whatever they needed.
Fornication or Relationships
When the Jews come back from the successful war against the Midianites, they had brought with them plunder, including Midianite women. Moshe became angered, noting that these women had seduced Jewish men to worship Pe’or, on the advice of Bilam. In saying that, he uses the words הן הנה, they themselves.
Rashi explains that those words are specific identifiers, not general ones. These actual women were known to Moshe and the rest of the camp; they knew which Jewish man had been with which Midianite woman. The shocking implication is that the whole plains of Moav incident took longer than the few verses it’s given in the Torah—the Moabite/Midianite women didn’t just have a one-night stand with the Jewish men, they developed a relationship that was public enough and well-established enough that everyone else in the camp knew who went with whom.
Perhaps that’s exaggerated, and Rashi means only that it was all public, so that even though it happened quickly, it was still well-known. But it does say that this was more than a bunch of Jews yielding to their sexual inclinations and then worshipping Pe’or. They did it, however quickly or slowly, in such a way that everyone knew what was happening, in great detail.
Replacing Children with Property
When the tribes of Reuven and Gad petition for the land east of the Jordan, they betray a certain skew in their values. 32;16 tells us of their plan to build pens for their livestock and cities for their women and children. On the words נבנה למקננו, Rashi comments that they cared more about their property than their children, since they prioritized the building of the pens over the building of the cities (in fairness to them, they may have felt the livestock were less easily handled than the people, and therefore more in need of pens).
Moshe corrects them, telling them to build the city for the children first, as a statement of what matters to them more. And they did.
The issue comes up again towards the end of the chapter, where verse 41 mentions Yair, the son of Menasheh, capturing some Emorite settlements, and calling them חוות יאיר, the towns of Yair. Rashi comments that he was childless, so he called the towns by his name, as a memorial.
In the context of that earlier Rashi, we get the sense that, at least for these tribes, the line between property and family was less clear than we’d have thought. Their first instinct is to protect property before children and, in the absence of children, property can be a meaningful substitute.
It’s a short parsha, and there’s another to come this week, but this one fetes us with a series of relationships and some of the things that can go right or wrong with them.