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Matot-Masei –Trusting the Oath Maker

Trusting the Oath Maker

Parashat Mattot-Masei

July 30, 2022

This week’s double portion finally makes the Torah portion in Israel and outside the same. We finish the book of Bamidbar (Numbers)

Matot starts with the laws concerning vows then continues with the attack on the Midianites, the boarders and the settlement of the Land of Israel is discussed and in Bamidbar 33:39 Aaron dies.

Vows, oaths, and contracts are agreements that go beyond the law. They limit or define human behavior and expectations.  Contracts are usually based on economic considerations such as buying and selling of property, goods, and services.  Oaths and vows are personal promises with God or a higher authority as a witness. as a party. Think of an oath of office – the person swears with his/her words on a Bible (representing the Divine) or the constitution (highest authority in the state) that the duties and requirements will be performed.  The words “so help me God” may be part of the oath.

The making of vows is frowned upon in our tradition. In Devarim 23:23 Moshe warned the Israelites that “if you neglect to make vows, you will not be considered as having sinned.”  Before the time of easy preparation of documents vows, promises, and other oral agreements were made more powerful with God.  Vows do not require written documents.  A vow is stronger than a verbal promise because the name of a higher authority is invoked either out loud or tactically implied.  The way in which a father or husband can annul the vow of a daughter or wife indicates that the process of vow taking is a serious matter. A man would need to consult a halakhic authority of the vow including forbidding oneself from doing something that is permissible under law.

One should be curious why the Torah places the law of vows in this parasha.  The Torah describes nation building.  The main project is getting ready for entry and conquest of Eretz Yisrael and the forming of a nation. They need to answer, “Can a society have laws, be just and be free? Freedom and chaos do not exist at the same time. Before the Flood, people were free, but order was lacking. When the Israelites left Egypt, they were free foreign domination.  Some societies have order but no freedom (thin dictatorships) When God created mankind by breathing into his nostrils, the dust was alive and had the power of speech and language.  Language can describe or tell a story, or it can be a force that does something. When a groom tells his kallah, “Behold you are betrothed to me …” he is getting married, not telling a story. When the beit din declares a new moon, they are creating a fact, not making a statement.

When making a vow or serious promise the utterance is creating something that never existed, a obligation. The obligation has a Divine partner. Jonathan Sachs says that a covenant is a mutual promise.  I will do this if you do that. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs says this is a supreme case or Ill to this if you do that. I don’t agree that this is an example of a vow.

Human behavior is full of unpredictability.  Some elements are beyond personal control, while others could be controlled by us.  A vow is a way to become regular, reliable, and predictable.  One who makes a vow is answerable to his own future. A vow is a way to limit behavior without removing all freedoms. If I keep my words, I can be trusted so that you can remove part of the uncertainty of unpredictability. In a society or organization freedoms depend on people keeping their word. A free society depends on trust. An example of this is a stop sign.  I depend on people stopping so that they don’t hit me when I cross the street.  A driver has the freedom to choose whatever car they want, but when other people are on the road, drivers need to be predictable in the observance of traffic laws and common sense.

The business lesson is that trust is an important part of organizational life.  Without keeping your work, teamwork is difficult. Without commitments, relationships, organizations, and society are difficult to hold together.  It may be tempting to break your word, but a belief that God is a party to vows and oaths, makes us more accountable for our actions.  Language and words when used to create are the tools to imitate God. Do your best to promise what you can deliver and do what you say, or we will lose some of our freedoms.

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Discussion questions:

  1. What can one do to indicate reliability with taking a vow? Can an organization have order without commitment?
  2. What are some of the traits of a reliable colleague or co-worker?
  3. Give another example of turning words into actions.
About the Author
Lives in Chicago, Illinois USA. Academic and synagogue librarian for more than 40 years. Graduate of Columbia University in the City of New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Jewish University of America. MHL and DHL in Tanah. Gabbai Sheni of Kehilath Jacob Beth Shmuel in Chicago for more than 40 years.
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