Tag Archives: Oaths

Parshat Nasso (5774)

Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

Treachery and its Remedy: Setting things right in word and deed

_img-sefer-gavelAs we come into this week’s parsha we are walking in the middle of something. Previously, in the final verses of Parshat Bamidbar, we began to hear about the tasks and charge of the Kohanim (priests). But now in this week’s parsha we read about the assignment of the other Levitic clans, the sub-tribes of Gershon and Merari; the families who carried and assembled the tabernacle. Here in this week’s parsha is where the real nuts and bolts come together in this story about the establishment of the Mishkan – the desert tabernacle, the precursor to the Temple in Jerusalem. Everything and everyone is put in place.

Now it is very easy for readers, especially after all the detail on priestly duty and purity in our previous book of Levitivus, to just breeze over much of the early text in this section. Especially the modern reader, who is not as interested in the temple cult as much as they are the more philosophical themes that come with later mitzvot.

Quite often we lunge for the exciting parts. Even myself, in previous years I have found my mind focusing on the real attention getters like the curious ritual of the sotah – the strange custom imposed upon the suspected adulteress, a woman who has acted treacherously against her husband (כי תשטה אשתו, ומעלה בו מעל). She has been unfaithful to him. (see “Parshat Nasso 2011: The Ritual of the Sotah, the Offering of Jealousies”)

But this week I would like us to step back just a little bit in this text. As we are going to focus on this topic of unfaithfulness, most often described simply as treachery in English. But this time we will come in at ground level on this topic. Because the suggestion of adultery is not the only form of treachery one can commit. Treachery can be committed by and against any type of fellow, man and woman; and by extensions it can also be committed against G-d.

Treachery is actually a very good word to use for the Hebrew word ma’al – which means to embezzle, to misappropriate. This is understood to happen as a result of people breaching a relationship of trust, and thus acting treacherously – meaning faithlessly and dishonestly.

There is another type of treachery and breach of trust that is just as appalling and distasteful as adultery. And it is revealed for us here in the third reading of our parsha.

Even before we begin to hear about the issues of unfaithfulness in marriage, we are first forced to recognize and deal with faithlessness and a breach in trust in the generals sense, between one person and their fellow. This can be broadly applied, and is explicit in mentioning that this applies to both men and women. Our text reads:

Tell the children of Israel:

Any man or woman

who commits any sins against man

to act treacherously against Hashem

and that person is guilty,

then they shall confess the sin

they committed,

and make restitution for

the full amount of their guilt,

adding a fifth to it,

and give it to

the one against whom they were guilty.”

| Daber el-benei Yisra’el

| ish o-ishah

| ki ya’asu mikol-chatot ha’adam

| lim’ol ma’al b’Hashem

| ve’ashmah hanefesh hahi

| Vehitvadu et-chatatam

| asher asu

| veheshiv et-ashamo

| berosho

| vachamishito yosef alav

| venatan

| la’asher asham lo

Numbers 5:6-7

If we read this text just straight forward we see a very important principle relating to justice presented here. How to remedy a breech of trust. When one acts treacherously, when one is dishonest, when one engages in stealing from people. This is how we remedy any type of violation of trust. Any sin against man (כי יעשו מכל חטאת האדם), any sin of embezzlement or dishonest practice. A sin against our fellow-man.

One is required to confess their sin and pay back the full amount of restitution to that person, plus a 20% penalty for harming the person. All this is paid directly to the injured party. If they cannot be found, then it should be given to their next of kin. If a family member cannot be located then it is given to the kohain – to a priest.

But notice the way it is further phrased, “to act treacherously against Hashem.” (למעל מעל ביי)

Now there are a few ways we can read that. First, the most obvious and the most striking is the face-value statement. That when we commit any type of sin against any man or woman, we are acting treacherously with our G-d. We are acting faithless, we are being a cheater. Likewise we are creating a chilul Hashem – a desecration of the Name of G-d. We are trashing G-d’s good name.

When ever a person among the people of Israel commits a sin against his fellow-man, he is not just harming that man. He is also offending G-d. He is being like the sotah – he is being faithless and untrustworthy like an adulteress in our relationship with G-d. That is the level of breach of trust there is going on here.

Now our rabbinic tradition, it likes to suggest a more specific type of crime here. Tradition is that the Torah does not repeat itself, there are no superfluous verses in the Torah. Yet we already see other verses in the Torah related to stealing in Viyikra  (Leviticus).

With this in mind our sages further identify this related to take a false oath, in order to steal their fellow’s property. Thus literally creating a chilul Hashem – a desecration, but taking a false oath. Which is the meaning of commandment, “Do not use name of Hashem in vain.” (Exodus 20:7) Attaching the name of G-d to a lie and injustice. Causing the Name of G-d to be used inappropriately. Negating the good name of G-d.

So why here, and why again? As this is also suggested to us elsewhere in Torah. However our sages focus in on a specific act this time around. The Rashi, in line with many of the rabbis, identifies this crime as being gezel ha-ger – the sin of stealing from a convert, or an immigrant.

But before we talk about that the ger – the convert, I want us to notice one other point. Let us look at the commentary. Rashi says:

To act treacherously against G-d: [Scripture] repeats the section [dealing with] a thief who swears falsely, which is stated in parshath Vayikra; “… and acts treacherously against G-d by falsely denying to his fellow…” (Lev. 5:21). It is repeated here because two new matters are introduced. The first is that it is written: “they shall confess,” which teaches us that he [the thief] is not required to pay a fifth and [bring] a guilt [offering] when incriminated by two witnesses, until he admits to the deed himself, and the second [matter] is that what is stolen from a proselyte must be given to the kohanim. – [Sifrei Naso 1:13]

למעל מעל בה‘: הרי חזר וכתב כאן פרשת גוזל ונשבע על שקר, היא האמורה בפרשת ויקרא (ה, כא) ומעלה מעל בהוכחש בעמיתו וגו‘, ונשנית כאן בשביל שני דברים שנתחדשו בה האחד, שכתב והתודו, לימד שאינו חייב חומש ואשם על פי עדים עד שיודה בדבר. והשני על גזל הגר שהוא נתון לכהנים:

Rashi to Number 5:6

Notice what it says here. That the person who has embezzled, who has stolen is not required to pay for their crime until they confess. And that is what makes this type of justice different from what we know today. And vastly different from what we see in secular legal remedy. When taking on civil cases, for instance. In such instances people are required to pay the amount back – to put the person back into their right standing, as before they were deprived of their property. And often there is a punitive damage added. So a person settles all of their issues by paying up. But there it is no requirement for them to confess their wrongs. Often people still deny their guilt, even as they pay damages.

Our sages suggest that the process is incomplete if a person does not confess their sins. And I believe that is the most difficult point of this lesson. That when we wrong someone, we are required to confess the wrong we have done to them. Torah morality does not allow us to just silently throw money and make the problem go away. No, we are required to confess what we have done in order to put it behind us and set things right. To validate the reality of the wrongs we have done against people.

However, I have a personal observation. I believe that the need to confess is not just for the sake of the person wronged, and to do right by G-d. But it is also for the sake of the sinner. It is essential that a person recognize for themselves the wrong they have done, in order to make a correction in themselves. In order to lay it out all so that they never repeat this again. To stop hiding their sin in the background, by shedding light on it. Shattering that dark area in our lives. Liberating one from shame and guilt, and all the burden of denial.

As I stated, our rabbis take this discussion one step further. And Rashi, at the end of this commentary, in short makes the point that like others who have no next of kin the amount of recompense and damages against a convert is paid to the kohain instead. He focuses on the ger – the convert, the immigrant. Stealing from them while lying under oath. This is the specific sin that requires this seeming repeat in the principles of fair dealings. Of course, the prohibition against harming a ger is something often mentioned in our tradition, but to our rabbis it is more specifically connected to oath taking here.

Our tradition, is very strong on demanding that we do right by the stranger in our midst. That we do not harm the ger – the convert or the immigrant. And it challenges us more than just on a social-civil level. It challenges us to do right by them, so as not to harm the holy message of the Torah true life. To not desecrate the Torah and Judaism itself through our deeds.

Why is it so important that our rabbis constantly warn against doing wrong by the convert? I believe one of the most clear and concise ways of summing this up is done by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin – the well-known Torah scholar and inspirational writer:

“A person who comes to Torah on his own volition does so because of the beautiful and elevated ideas he hears regarding Torah principles. He made his decision on the assumption that those who follow the Torah will act toward him in accordance with all the Torah laws pertaining to interpersonal relations. If someone cheats him financially or in some other way wrongs him, he [the Ger Tzeddek; the Righteous Convert] will not only suffer a monetary loss. Rather, he might also feel disillusioned with his decision to accept a Torah way of life.

The Ger Tzeddek has usually given up very much because of his ideals and will experience much pain from his disappointment that the people he is in contact with do not meet the Torah standards he expected of them. The importance of not harming a convert can be seen from the fact that Torah warns us about this in a number of places. From the negative we can learn the positive. The merit of acting with love and kindness toward a convert is great.”

Growth Through Torah”, page 312

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

I don’t think I really need to add anything to that, as these wise words encapsulates how this all pans out in my mind as well upon consideration. This lesson especially hangs heavy on my heart, with personal sting of not so infrequently seeing strangers and converts wronged.

And furthermore, I feel the rabbi is right. This text and understanding can be redeemed by helping us realize just how important and meritorious it is to show kindness a stranger – to a convert or an immigrant.

In closing I would like to also leave us with one more observation by another very wise scholar, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. He gives us another reason as to seeming juxtaposition of this section with other commandments on the page. He instead relates it back to the conversation we had last week, about the tribal flags. And how some struggle with that in light of nationalism and the hostility towards outsiders. (see “Parshat Bamidbar 5774: Nationalism: How do you feel about flag waving?”) The rabbi writes:

“But why must the laws of gezel ha-ger [stealing from a convert/immigrant] appear in Parashat Naso? The underlying idea, the motto which appears again and again throughout the first two parashiot of the book of Bemidbar [Numbers] is “le-mishpechotam le- beit avotam” – “according to their families and by the house of their fathers.” The beginning of the book of Bemidbar is filled with the idea of family and tribal roots. However, there is a psychological danger stemming from feelings of tribal rootedness and connection; it can lead to disregard and even hostility towards all outsiders, towards all those not belonging to the clan.

“While Judaism sees the family and the nation as central to Jewish identity and consciousness, it is well aware of the danger to which these loyalties can lead when taken to an extreme. It is for this reason that we are commanded with regard to gezel ha-ger in the middle of Parashat Naso. It is precisely the ger, the foreigner, lacking the sense of familial, tribal and national roots, who is most vulnerable to the atmosphere pervading the beginning of Sefer Bemidbar. Therefore, the Torah commands us here to deal with the ger exactly as we would with our fellow Israelites.”

Sicha of HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein, shlit”a

I hope we all take this to heart as we read this parsha, and make a commitment to do right by the strangers in our midst.

Related articles:

Parshat Kedoshim (5774)

Leviticus 19 – 20

Because “I Meant Well” Doesn’t Cut It

As we come into this week’s parsha we cannot avoid the fact that this week’s theme is holiness, Kedoshim means to be holy, to be sacred. Our parsha is named after the key word that leads this parsha, and the leading word in the phrase: “Kedoshim tiheyu ki kadosh ani Hashem eloheichem / You shall be holy, for I, Hashem, am holy.” (Levitcus 19:2)

We aught to really consider the advice that we give people, realizing that people are often trusting us to blindly to lead them. If we misadvise someone, its just like setting up a stumbling block which causes them to fall

“We aught to really consider the advice that we give people, realizing that people are often blindly trusting us to lead them. If we mis-advise someone, it’s just like setting up a stumbling block which causes them to fall”

The Torah begins to detail what it means to be holy. Respecting your parents, and observing Shabbat. (v. 3) Not making worthless idols, but instead showing respect for the sacred service of Hashem. (v. 4) This all keeps in mind with lofty sacredness we normally associate with religion and tradition. (v. 5-8)

But then our Torah immediately begins to challenge us with addition demands which are not so heavenly, but instead focused on the way we treat other people. The Torah suggest that part of holiness is displayed by how care for our fellow man. At this time we are also commanded to leave behind some of the remaining crops after the harvest, and to leave the corners of the field so that they can be collected by the poor, and the stranger – the ger the resident alien (or the convert). (v. 10-11)

And then the Torah makes even more demands, ones of an ethical nature. That we do not steal, that we do not falsely deny people their property or deny our true intentions. That we not lie to our fellow. (v. 11) Lest we believe these demands are merely good civil suggestions, we see that our Torah presses the issue of honesty as being a matter of spiritual significance.

We cannot be dishonest with our fellow and expect that it to not eventually have mirroring consequences for how we respect the creator of man – Hashem our G-d. We are told that we should not be false because it can inevitably lead to one falsely swearing or testifying by G-d’s Name, and thereby, “chilul Hashem eloheichem / profane the Name of your G-d.” (v. 12)

This part of the Torah is elementary for every Jew. We understand that we are to deal fairly and honestly in all our dealing because our actions can lead to the desecration of G-d’s Name. It’s more than just taking a false oath and testifying dishonestly after swearing by G-d. We also understand that as Jews, as religious Jews, our actions have consequences. Acting poorly reflects badly upon our faith and diminishes people’s respect for our G-d. We drag G-d’s Name down into the muck with us when we act unethically.

Simply put, the command to be holy is so important because the world cannot comprehend our G-d as holy if the people who claim to represent Him act appallingly. This call of holiness is not just a demand for us to rise to holiness, but also a stern warning not to diminish the holiness of our righteous G-d through our actions.

So what are we next warned again? We are further commanded not oppress our fellow. To not rob them. And to not withhold the wages of the workers. (v. 13) The Torah talks about paying a laborer in the manner of a day laborer, at the end of the day and not stiffing them or holding out.

For just a moment I would like us to consider the plight of the many immigrants to this country who are most often oppressed, robed of all they have on their road to freedom, and then upon arrival most often exploited in employment because of their illegal status. Day laborers in this country are openly exploited in some of the most appalling ways.

The strangers in our midst – the ger, the immigrant and the convert – this is most often their reality. Being unfamiliar with our ways and at the mercy of the suggestions of others they are taken advantage of by not just the locals, but most often by other immigrants who insincerely swear they are merely looking out for this person’s best interests. But even if its obvious that is not true, the stranger isn’t in a position to defend themselves and therefore just learn to deal with it. As people siphen these laborers dough and resources. I see things like this near everyday in the barrio, with inappropriate demands and unfair pay. As I see it, the Torah’s commands are no less relevant to us today.

Before we move on, I would hope that we all make a commitment to deal fairly with all workers, both with our own citizens and the strangers in our midst. Even day laborers are entitled to a fair and timely wage according to our Torah!

However, today we are going to focus on the final verse of our first aliyah, verse 14. This next commandment related to holiness is the least understood of these statements. It reads:

“Do not not curse a deaf person.

Do not place a stumbling block

before a blind person.

You shall fear your G-d – I am Hashem.

| Lo-tekalel cheresh

| velifnei iver lo

| titen michshol

| veyareta me’Eloheicha ani Hashem

Leviticus 19:14

The placement of these commands should make sense to us. We have talked about the poor, the stranger, the laborer, and now it deals with the disabled. Specifically the deaf and the blind. That one should not curse them, nor be tricksters with them. One might ask themselves who would be cruel to a person and take advantage of them based on their condition? You would be surprised the callousness some people have. It should be severely obvious to us, we are commanded do not to mistreat the disabled.

Because it is also unthinkable to our rabbis that people should be so overtly cruel, the rabbis have tried to focus more deeply upon this message to make us realize that this commandment can also apply to each of us in more subtle ways.

Our sages are of the opinion that it is unthinkable for us to curse any living person, let alone a deaf person. That when the Torah makes this command it is merely to double reinforce this for their benefit! So our rabbis pretty much walk away from this saying not to curse anyone, but especially not the deaf. Because they can’t hear you, it’s cruel and unfair.

I agree with the sages on this. Our rabbis tend to see all of this verse in a more symbolic manner. They further draw ethical lessons from these verses for the benefit of all people. This has also been my understanding as I read these verses.

For example, the first phrase of our statement “do not curse a deaf person” also has figuratively meant to me to not get angry with people when they cannot hear what you are saying. When they just don’t have the ears to hear, they just aren’t capable of listening or giving heed to better advice.

Rashi’s advice also seems to follow a similar line of logic as we continue with the commentary for this verse, regarding the blind. The Rashi for the blind reads:

You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person: Before a person who is ‘blind’ regarding a matter, you shall not give advice that is improper for him. [For instance,] do not say to someone, ‘Sell your field and buy a donkey [with the proceeds],’ while [in truth] you plan to cheat him [by advising him to sell his field for a very low price for your own purpose,] since you yourself will take the field from him [for this low price].”

ולפני עור לא תתן מכשל: לפני הסומא בדבר לא תתן עצה שאינה הוגנת לו, אל תאמר מכור שדך וקח לך חמור, ואתה עוקף עליו ונוטלה הימנו:

Rashi, Levitcus 19:14

Rashi likens a person who is knowledgeable and clueless in a matter to one who is blind, for a person is indeed “blind” in that matter. When one can’t see for themselves what is true and what isn’t. They can’t see the path or dangers ahead, so they are dependent upon us to help them navigate that path. Since our trusted advice leads the way, it’s no less cruel to trip people up with advice than it is to physically stick out your leg and cause them to stumble. Sometimes our bad advice, that can be a stumbling block to others.

Rashi even outright tells that based on this command we are forbidden from giving advice that is improper for a person. We are commanded to keep in mind the best interest of the person, and not our own interests. Rashi tells us we are forbidden from giving advice which benefits us, instead of the person we are advising. That we benefit, as they stumble.

Furthermore, our rabbinic tradition seems to suggest to us that we should not be loose with handing out advice for which we have a financial interest in. Rashi makes this example, its like giving bad real estate advice to the needy, when your intention is to make a steal by acquiring their property below market value. Our rabbis thereby would suggest it is inappropriate for us to go around giving advice for which we have personal and special interests in, for which we ourselves profit.

Why not? Simply because it’s nearly impossible to be objective in one of those situations. That should be obvious.

Personally, I don’t necessarily like giving out personal advice to people. I always wait until asked, and I am always pensive about my responses. Making sure to keep in mind the situation and needs of the person I’m talking to. And always trying to leave my own interest out of it. But more often than not, I’m usually simply listening to people and helping them figure how to pick and approach the best of the choices present in their lives.

Honestly, I prefer to give my personal advice to people privately. As the internet is rife with people who loosely hand out advice on things. People who give you hokey advice, then want to “click here” to buy into it.

Personally I strive not to be one of them. I hope to share the personal knowledge I have, so that people can make better choices for themselves. But I believe the Torah herein tells us to be careful regarding our intentions when we suggest things to others.

Now the Internet personalities out there most certainly get upset when you pose it that way. Because it is very easy for one to snap back, “But you don’t know my intentions!” Precisely one cannot truly judge another person’s intentions, that’s another reason yet why we should restrain ourselves:

And you shall fear your G-d: [Why is this mentioned here?] Because this matter [of misadvising someone] is not discernible by people, whether this person had good or evil intentions, and he can avoid [being recriminated by his victim afterwards] by saying, ‘I meant well!’ Therefore, concerning this, it says, ‘and you shall fear your G-d,” Who knows your thoughts!’ Likewise, concerning anything known to the one who does it, but to which no one else is privy, Scripture says, ‘and you shall fear your G-d.’” – [Torath Kohanim 19:34]

ויראת מאלהיך: לפי שהדבר הזה אינו מסור לבריות לידע אם דעתו של זה לטובה או לרעה, ויכול להשמט ולומר לטובה נתכוונתי, לפיכך נאמר בו ויראת מאלהיך המכיר מחשבותיך. וכן כל דבר המסור ללבו של אדם העושהו ואין שאר הבריות מכירות בו, נאמר בו ויראת מאלהיך:

Rashi, Levitcus 19:14

One of the reasons we need to keep from doing anything that looks inappropriate in our dealings with others is because they have no way at all of knowing our intentions. For in such a case, when things go sour, what is else can one say? Other than, “I meant well!” and, “I had the best intentions!” But the truth is that is insufficient of a statement. In fact Rashi and our rabbis would suggest that is merely a knee-jerk way of avoiding recrimination.

Rashi instead speaks to a person who uses such an excuse through this last clause, saying that you should fear G-d. Because He really does know whats going on inside your head, and in your heart. Therefore fear G-d – or more appropriate, show respect for G-d – and know that He is privy to your private thoughts. One should consider if their intentions are really so pure, or if they are instead colored by personal bias or financial interest. And be aware that even when we don’t consciously recognize it, G-d does know and will judge us accordingly. G-d seeing all the factors, even the ones we choose to leave out and ignore.

When we do things that are inappropriate and non-transparent we not only jeopardize our own sacredness, but we also profane the Name of G-d. When we engage in things that may appear inappropriate we show a shocking lack of respect for G-d, not just for man.

Lesson of the Week: We ought to really consider the advice that we give people, realizing that people are often blindly trusting us to lead them. If we misadvise someone, it’s just like setting up a stumbling block which causes them to fall.

Related articles:

Parshah Nitzavim-Vayelech (2011)

Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

Ezra Yisrael, The Citizen of Israel: How the Native-Born and Immigrant (convert) are both considered to be born in Zion

The Double Torah Portion

Very often during the procession through the Torah, parashiot are paired together in order to accommodate the leap years. Nitzavim and Yayelech most often experience this pairing, which is also the case this year. This is the last parsha before Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – which will begin the High Holiday season. We are also nearing the end of the Torah cycle, which we begin again on Simchat Torah thats comes at the tale end of Sukkot

When the Torah portions are coupled together it is the custom to compare and contrast the messages of both; however, in this case I believe we will see that both have a very similar tone and message. As we are quickly coming upon the end of Mosheh’s (Moses) leadership over the people both chapters are filled with fatherly advice and promises being made. On many levels these sections of the Torah have a tone of wrapping up loose ends, which reverberates with the sentiments of this season.

Parshat Nitzavim

As we worked through the last few parsha studies we were drawn into the specifics about the legal system and leadership, oaths and vows, as well as conversion. These topics all come together here in this parsha, during the first reading:

“You are all standing today

together before Hashem your G-d

the tribal leaders,

the elders and officers

all men of Israel;

your small children and your wives,

and the convert that dwells in your community,

from the wood-cutters to the water-bears;

so that you would come into a covenant

with Hashem your G-d

and the oath that Hashem your G-d

makes with you today.”

| Atem nitzavim hayom

| kulechem lifnei Hashem Eloheichem

| rasheichem shivteichem

| zikneichem veshotreichem

| kol ish Yisra’el.

| Tapechem nesheichem

| vegerecha asher bekerev machaneicha

| mechotev etseicha ad sho’ev meimecha.

| Le’overecha bivrit

| Hashem Eloheicha

| uve’alato asher Hashem Eloheicha

| koret imcha hayom.

Deuteronomy 29:9-11

As we come into this parsha we are told that all the people are together in one place at this time. They are standing there in order to receive a brit and alah, a covenant and an oath. Though alah, as we have learned, also means curse we must make the distinction in the application of the word here. They are not being hexed, they are not being inflicted with anything as such; but instead they are making a dreaded pact or terrible oath. As chapter 29 continues we will see that the people are told they were once strangers subjugated in another land, and that this type of suffering would happen again if they people did not hold true to the Torah. Then in the next chapter, we read of the eventual return of the people as they would repented and G-d would have compassion on them.

Though the tone of these chapters does sound like it is inevitable (per-determined), we need to realize the reason it sounds this way is because this covenant and oath is one in the same. It is a contract, stipulating that if things go according to the terms set therein these things will happen, and when they don’t these contrasting things will happen. For those who live up to it then its a great deal, for those who don’t it’s very terrible. A contract tells us what “shall” happen in certain cases, but it cannot be read as what will happen; because that outcome is entirely up to us based on how we live up to the terms. (see Parshat Re’eh)

On one hand we can read the statement plainly, as a description that they are standing there; they are natzav, which as a verb means to position oneself perpendicular. The people are standing upright, with dignity, to take an oath.

Or we can look at the word figuratively as a noun, that each of the people is a natzav – an officer – each person is an agent of Torah living. In this sense the word is similar to an English legal term, that one has standing; meaning one is able to enter into contract of their own free will and being capable of understanding what they are doing. Ordinarily this only applies to a free adult; for example a minor cannot sign a contract and it be binding as they are beholden to the rules of others, nor are they mature enough to understand the weight of it. A contract made by person without standing is void; invalid and unenforceable. In contrast, though we are told here that every Israelite was able to enter into this contract with G-d, even a woman and a child. The tribal leaders and the laborers, all have equal standing. Everyone is required to be a guarantors (Heb. “aravim”) of this covenant, we are liable to the terms of Torah. (Talmud, Shevuot 39b).

Everything we read in this section makes sense up against all the rest of our studies in Devarim (Deuteronomy). Everyone is required to learn Torah and its application, constantly discussing it day and night. If we are required to keep it, then understanding it is essential. As the Veyahavta (Deut. 6:5-9) says, we are to discuss it and teach it to our children and talk about it with our companions; on the road and when we sit in our homes; day and night. This Torah was not left to only intellectuals or leaders, the weight of it falls on each person small and great.

In Israel not only is the common man (and woman) charged with the solemn role of keeping Torah, but a commoner is able to be recognized as a scholar. In the legal works of Maimonides – the Rambam – he points out that some of the greatest of our rabbis were men of humble means and professions, citing this parsha:

גדולי חכמי ישראל |

היה מהם חוטבי עצים |

ומהם שואבי מים, |

ומהם סומין |

ואף על פי כן היו עוסקין בתורה |

, ביום ובלילה |

והם מכלל מעתיקי השמועה, |

איש מפי איש |

מפי משה רבנו. |

“Many of the great sages of Israel

were wood-cutters

and water-bearers

and the blind.

And this is how they engaged themselves,

by day and by night;

they transmitted [lit. “copied”] the sayings [lit. “rumors”]

from person to person

going back to Mosheh Rabbeinu.”

Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Helichot Talmud Torah, 1:9

As we look at this quote we can easily see it in context of the age in which this took place, the average laborer was illiterate. Whereas in most cultures knowledge is held by the privileged classes – the rich, not the workers who were literate – the point is driven home for us by mentioning the blind. The blind cannot read, not because they don’t know how but because they physically don’t have the ability. How did they gain their Torah knowledge then? He suggests to us that people orally transmitted this teaching one to another. As we know it is common among the sages to know both the written Torah and the Mishnah commentary (which was one time entirely oral, and not written) by heart. The Rambam clearly teaches that there is neither intellectual or physical disability that limits ones ability to pursue Torah and be recognized for their contribution. The Rambam’s position seems to be that the Torah was heard by everyone the first time literate or not, likewise they transmitted this knowledge in the same manner, to the merit of all Israel. Thus even the illiterate and the disabled can be authorities in Torah.

But for a moment let us consider just the wording of the text. Looking at the text by itself everything seems to logically belong except for the wood-cutters and water-bears. Every other term and instance has been discussed up until now except for these two groups. They are mentioned in a mater-of-fractal tone and with bluntness that suggests there is a back story here. There must be something unique and distinct about these people. However, not once are they mentioned by Moses until now.

The generally understanding applied by the rabbis is that this is in reference to laborers, as we have discussed. However, as these forms of labor were very intense they were usually reserved for slaves and other bonded laborers. Rashi suggests to us that these people were Canaanites servants that were kept by Israelites.

Though we do not have a previous example to show for, we do have a single instance provided in scriptures that seems to describe a situation such as this during the leadership of YehoshuaJoshuah, the judge who ascended to leadership after the death of Moses. We will read of this in Joshua 9.

As we learned the people were commanded not to make any treaties with the inhabitants of the Land, nor were they to take slaves from among them. However, this is exactly what the people did with two groups; the Gibionites and the Hivitites1.

To make a long story short, the inhabitants of the Land had heard how Egypt and the other Canaanite nations were crushed by the approaching Israelites. Out of fear the Gibionites devised a plan to approach Israel with the claim that they had come from a far away land with tribute goods and money. Though when they came to meet with the Israelites they had nothing but empty bags and worn goods, which they claimed they were forced to use out of necessity during their long journey. Believing this claim the elders of Israel accepted their seeming intentions of good will, and honored their request to make a treaty with them and to allow them to dwell in the Land as servants of Israel.

Though it didn’t take long for this lie to come to light, as we are told on the third day of the invasion Israel came to the cities of Gibion and became aware of the error that was made. Joshua then became infuriated with the leaders for making such a covenant, all without consulting G-d through him. The anger didn’t stop there, likewise the congregation of Israel became angry with the elders and tribal heads for agreeing to the treaty. Yet the leaders still refused to go against their promise, stating they had sworn to G-d. Though it appears that the real issue at hand for the leaders was their own honor, therefore they claimed they alone would take responsibility, and wrath for this treaty should it arise. They continued to demand that the Gibionites be allowed to live, suggesting that they could be wood-cutters and water-bearers for the congregation of Israel.

Joshua then summoned the leaders of the Gibionites and proposed this solution to them, which they willingly agreed to. Thus verse 27 states:

“And Joshua stipulated on that day

that they be wood-cutters and water-bears

for the congregation

and the altar of Hashem;

unto this very day

in the place of His choosing.”

| Va’yat’naim Yehoshua b’yom ha-hu

| chotaiv eitzim v’shasavei mayim

| l’edah

| u’lemitzbeach Hashem

| ad ha-yom hazeh

| el ha-makom asher yiv’char.

Joshuah 9:27

In Rashi’s commentary for our parsha from Midrash Techumah he does not ignore the fact that this case takes place after the closure of the Chumash (the Five books of Moses). However, he is of the opinion that this was also the case with other Canaanites previously. Thus the suggestion of making these people servants and absorbing them into the nation was made based on previous precedent. If this is true, it would explain why such a remedy was acceptable in this instance. Rashi holds a very unique position from the other rabbis; not in suggesting the servitude to the people of Israel, but by theorizing this was not the only instance.

The Rambam, however, simply suggests that these wood-cutters and water-bears were laborers from the mixed-multitude of people that came up from Egypt with the Israelites.

However, both Rashi and the Rambam’s understanding of this has one thing in common; unlike the other classical commentators they both appear to reject the claim that these people were mere slaves. As we know, there were people who joined with Israel during the Exodus that were later converted and became part of the congregation of Israel as full citizens; and therefore became free men. It appears to me that only this position would be sensible in light of the statement “so that you would come into a covenant with Hashem your G-d;” they came under the covenant by accepting Torah living, and professed Hashem as their own G-d.

The Rambam’s position is understandable, the Gibionite debacle had not yet happened when the words of our parsha were spoken in Deuteronomy. It can only mean people who are already among them.

Though Rashi’s position also seems reasonable, especially in light of the continuing verses in the second reading:

“Not only with you do I

make this covenant

and this oath;

but with those who are here

with us, standing this day

before Hashem our G-d,

and also with those who are not here

with us today.”

| V’lo it’chem l’vadechem anochi

| koreit et ha-brit ha-zot,

| v’et ha-alah ha-zot.

| ki et asher yesh’nu poh

| imanu omad ha-yom

| lifnei Hashem Eloheinu

| v’eit asher ainainu poh

| manu ha-yom.

Deuteronomy 29:14

Usually when we read this statement we understand it to simply mean that G-d make a covenant with all of the children of Israel; not just those where were present in that age, but also every successive generation of the Israelites as well. The principals of this pact are applicable both to the Israelites of the Exodus period, and to all Israelites in the future.

Likewise, just as the servants and immigrants during Moses’ day were required to come into the covenant of G-d, so too in future generations it would be His desire that all the people in the Land of Israel also come into Torah living.

Rashi therefore sees the incident of the Gibionites not as a precedent, but the application of an already established precedent to the situation at had.

Though the average Israelite citizenry objected to the mercy that was shown towards the Gibionites, the reasoning behind their objection was most likely not because they despised the people for being strangers and citizens of enemy nations. The Egyptians and Edomites were considered arch enemies of Israel, yet they were extended the welcome and acceptance into the faith of Israel (see Parshat Ki Teitzei). The only explanation for their anger seems to be based on the dishonesty employed by these strangers to gain Israel’s trust.

Not even the servitude of the Gibionite can be understood as an act of punishment and scorn, because it was the Gibionites themselves that initially suggested that they be employed as servants in return for amnesty. Generally when people resent strangers there is a sense of distrust and suspicion. Given their dishonesty, such a sentiment would be understandable.

But it does not appear to be the case once the Gibionites converted, in my opinion. This is evident to me because of the role the Gibionites were given. They were not just relegated to hard labor, being subjugated to the most harsh and humiliating work. No, we read they were also given the responsibility of provide the wood and the water for the altar of G-d as well. Such a task could only be given to people they trusted and believed were truly sincere, as a deceitful person could easily desecrate the sanctuary or Shabbat. This cannot be taken lightly as plagues were inflicted on Israel during the Exodus for things such as improper sacrifices and gathering sticks on Shabbat, such a risk would not have been taken had there been the least bit of suspicion.

Not only were these people accepted into the congregation of Israel, they were also honored with a role in providing for the Temple service itself. Instead of being pushed to the fringes of society, they were brought into the very heart of the Israelite culture and religion. They would continue to serve in this capacity even after the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem. It should come as no surprise to anyone that from the days of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem until now, the Jewish people have witnessed many converts become established a rabbis and scholars.

Parshat Vayelech

Gihon Spring

The passage to the Gihon Spring, from which the water for the Temple was drawn

As we come upon the High Holiday season the ancient prayers and rituals observed, we often find our imaginations filled with thoughts of what it would have been like to have experienced them for ourselves in the ancient Temple. Had we actually been able to make the pilgrimage to the Temple for ourselves we could have witnessed the contribution of the Gibionites very clearly. During one specific festival their contribution would be almost unavoidable; during Sukkot – the Festival of Booths, which is one of the shelosh regalim – the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals that all Israelite men were required to make.

Ordinarily during the daily and additional festival offerings in the Temple wood and water were just mere commodities. They were utilized for washing and for making fire, very ordinary and mundane. However, during Sukkot both tree-cuttings (which is literally what “chateiv eitzim / wood-cutter means; they cut the eitzim, “trees” in the plural, for wood) and water would be celebrated. First the altar would be surrounded by branches of foliage from four native species of trees, ceremoniously placed to display the full bloom of the fall harvest. Then spring water would be poured over the altar, a ritual that is unique only to Sukkot; this would welcome the coming raining season that provides for the spring harvest.

Appropriately we find in the fifth reading of the Torah, which is where the reading of Parshat Vayelech begins, that Moses also brings our attention to the festival of Sukkot.

In Parshat Vayelech we find Moses performing some last tasks before handing over the leadership to the next generation, and sending them on their way to cross over the Jordan river to occupy and settle the Land. We read that Moses writes down copies of the Torah and gives them to the priests and the elders of Israel. Starting in Deuteronomy 31:9 we read the following statement:

“Moses commanded them, saying:

at the end of seven years

after the year of the Shemitah

during the festival of Sukkot

When all Israel comes

to appear before Hashem your G-d

in the place which he shall choose

you shall read this Torah

before all Israel, so that they hear it.

Assemble the people;

the men, women and small children

and the converts that dwell within your gates

so that they may hear it

and so that they may learn it,

and be in awe of Hashem your G-d,

and carefully keep all the words

of this Torah.”

| Vayetzav Moshe otam lemor

| miketz sheva shanim

| bemo’ed shnat hashmitah

| bechag haSukkot.

| Bevo chol-Yisra’el

| lera’ot et-penei Hashem Eloheicha

| bamakom asher yivchar

| tikra et-hatorah hazot

| neged kol-Yisra’el be’ozneihem.

| Hakhel et-ha’am

| ha’anashim vehanashim vehataf

| vegercha asher bish’areicha

| lema’an yishme’u

| ulema’an yilmedu

| veyar’u et-Hashem Eloheichem

| veshameru la’asot et-kol-divrei

| hatorah hazot

Deuteronomy 31:10-12

Several times in the Torah Moses has commanded the people regarding Shemitah – the sabbatical year – for which they were commanded to allow the land to lay fallow and to pardon debts (see Ex. 23, Lev. 25, Deut. 15). They had already been instructed regarding Sukkot as well (see Lev. 23, Ex. 23:16, Deut. 16:13). But here Moses gives the people one additional command for the people to observe for when they go into the land, and the sanctuary is established. Every seven years the priests and the elders are to gather the people and read the Torah to entire nation. All the people of Israel, every citizen is required to hear Torah so that they can learn to keep it.

Here again Moses identifies who is an Israelite; this congregation of Israel is described by him as being made up of men, women, children and converts. All of the nation, every citizen is to hear the entire Torah read aloud. Hearing the Torah and understanding it, the people would be amazed by it and be compelled to safeguard its commands.

Surely, out of all the people that heard the Torah the converts must have truly been among the most awestruck. The awesomeness of the G-d of Israel and His Torah had already stirred them to the point that they were compelled to abandon their former culture and religion, and to embrace the ways of Hashem. We can only imagine the honor and privilege they felt to not only be an ezrah Yisra’el – a citizen of Israel – but also to be able to stand in the sacred Temple itself and hear the Torah spoken in all its wonder.

To non-Jews it might seems very strange that the people of Israel would attract and receive converts – gerim, strangers; if they are even aware that Judaism allows converts. One might wonder what significance this Torah and these holidays could have for a person who is not “native-born.” After all the Torah is written in the language of the people Israel, and the holidays commemorate the salvations and blessings of the Jewish people. For Jews who hold on to the promises of Torah, its not perplexing at all. G-d promised that He was not just making this covenant with us alone, but also with those who are not here with us yet. Not only does this promise extend to Jews of future generations, but it applies to future Jews as well. This promise is for Jews by birth and for Jews by choice.

In our tradition all the people of the congregation of Israel are counted as natives, not foreigners. To an extent the majority of the Jewish people for thousands of years have been “foreign born.” Being born outside of the Land, even in exile and bondage. This was very common going back to the earliest day of the ancient kingdom of Israel. For this reason Psalm 87, points out that not only does G-d love the people of Zion, but His will is to know the peoples scattered in foreign lands. The Psalmist lists Rahab, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia; all the places were the people of Israel were exiled. G-d says He will make mention of them all as those who know Him (v.3), and they would be considered to be “born there” in Zion. (v.4) Instead of being considered a foreigner, it says “Hashem will count in the registry of the People: ‘This one was born there.’” (v.6) This applies to Jews born in foreign lands, who are born Jewish; as well as Jews of foreign birth, who were foreigners and have become Jewish.

For the Jewish people the acceptance of the strangers comes out sympathy, knowing very well whats its like to be a stranger in a strange land. The people of Israel like no other people relate to being in need of a home; both physically and spiritually. That is why the message of this Torah and these festivals of deliverance also reverberate with many from among the nations, who choose to make their home among the people of Israel.

As we come upon the High Holidays we should all consider the significance of the symbolism of the in-gathering of the peoples and nations. During the Sukkot services we will read of the sacrifices offered in the Temple for the 70 nations, which are symbolic of the whole known world to the ancient Israelites. We commemorate these offerings with prayers that request the reestablishment of this practice in the future Temple. Though these prayers are not in hopes that the Jewish people will once again offer these sacrifices in the Temple in their place, but in expectation that the nations will stand with us and offer worship to G-d themselves. This expectation comes from a promise made in the book of Zachariah, that in the age to come this would happen:

“And it shall be that all who remain

from all the nations of the peoples

that had gone

against Jerusalem

will go up ever year; from year to year

to worship the King,

Hashem Tz’vaot [The Master of Legions]

and celebrate the festival of Sukkot.”

| V’yahi kol ha-notar

| mi-kol ha-goyim

| ha-baim

| al Yerushalayim

| v’alu midai shanah v’shanah

| l’hishtachot l’melech

| Hashem Tz’vaot

| v’lachog et chag ha-Sukkot

Zechariah 14:16-17

When we consider this we see that Sukkot, is one festival that has deep significance not just for those born Jewish, but also for strangers and convert as well.

The Hivities play a minor role in this story, as they were not indigenous Canaanites; but foreign settlers that settled in Canaan among the Gibionites, in the say way the Hittites of Anatolia had.

Parshat Matot (2011)

Parshat Matot
Numbers 30:2–32:42

All About Vows, Not All About Women

 Getting Up to Speed: How we got here

Our parsha begins with instruction that is given to the tribal heads of Israel, to the leaders of the clans. Remember in last weeks parsha I pointed out that much of the drama in the story of Parshat Pinchas  was related to the tribal heads not doing their jobs to discipline their own families, and letting the actions get out of hand until a plague began to engulf the people. We read how they are told to remedy the situation, but disaster is instead diverted by a striking act of zealotry by Pinchas the priest. (see Parshat Pinchas 2011)

A Whole Chapter That Turns Talmudic

This whole first chapter of our pasha is going to concern one single command, so it must be pretty important. Everyone important is there, and it has an important tone. This parsha opens up with giving a directive that it states in very direct and clear terms as “zeh hadavar asher tzuah Hashem / this is the thing that Hashem has commanded.” (Numbers 30:2)

Now this command has to be spoken about in such definitive terms because it’s going to talk about issues of gender and shake things up in a way that is pretty revolutionary for the time. Not that talking about these issues doesn’t raise a stir even at this point in history. I’m not ignorant, I personally know a few feminists rabbis that are going to give blood curdling speeches about how the Hebrew scriptures spew sexism and some will even go as far as suggest we should rip pages out of the sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) in objection. I’m against sexism, as much as anyone else. There is no room for it in Torah-true living. But expunging our true historic development and not putting things into a broader perspective is just intellectually dishonest. Besides, if we are going to keep this Torah we need to learn to read it other ways and give up our rigidness; this isn’t new, this is how traditional Judaism deals with advancement.

What do I mean by look at it in a broader perspective? Well, why do we not apply the rules of logic that we utilize with the Torah – namely Talmud, the oral Torah – to the text here. I say this because here is the assembly of all the elders of Israel both small and great, and they are being given commands and it is being discussed in much the same manner we do in the sanheidrin before a body of leaders. Many people who are not traditional or not Jewish might lose interest at this point because they can easily dismiss the Talmud on the basis of the various opinions concerning details of Jewish law and say that something so varying cannot be something divinely sanctioned; because it has to be black and white. But what many people miss about applying Talmudic legal thinking is that there is so much that is said in the silence of the discussion on certain elements. The real treasure of the Talmud is that it doesn’t insult the intelligence of a person by arguing the agreed upon, only the variances of the application of what is agreed upon. This might be a bit confusing so let me give you and example using our parsha and this mitzvah.

As our text opens we are given a concrete and certain idea to consider, verse 3 reads:

“A man who makes a vow to Hashem

or swears an oath to restrict himself with

upon his self

he shall not break his word,

all that comes out of his mouth he shall do.”

| Ish ki-yidor neder l’Hashem

| o-hishava shvu’ah lesor isar

| al-nafsho

| lo yachel d’varo

| kechol-hayotze mipiv ya’aseh

Numbers 30:3

We are shown here that a person is able to make a vow to G-d, or swear to anything of his own volition. Now what do we mean by a vow? The word used is neder, it means to make a promise. Neder is also the name of certain type of sacrifice, it is a sacrifice that is to be made in the Temple to honor that vow. Basically how it works is someone make a promise for anything and when it comes through they will offer a sacrifice to G-d.

The other option is to assar, or to make an oath; literally it means to forbid. It is along the same lines as the neder promise, but is characterized by including a promise to deprive oneself of a certain thing until a certain time or a certain occurrence takes place.

Now its true the word ish can mean person, not just man. It often means man in the general sense. For me this would be good enough, a person is able to make a vow and they should keep it. But here it really does mean man.

And this is where the gauntlet falls, now the text is going to go into specifying details regarding the application of the vows and oaths by means of examples. Now for those of you who say that Talmud is the only book to knit-pick, this is where the oral and written Torahs show they really are two halves to a whole. The text if very detailed, but for the sake of time I will quickly explain the examples it lays out for us:

  • If a woman (ishah) makes a vow or an oath while she is still a minor in her father’s house, and he does not say anything in objection to it then her vow is valid and she is obligated. But a father may invalidate her vow on the day he hears of it (or as some say, if he hears of it on that day). If the father intervenes in such a way G-d will forgive her because her father has restricted her. (verses 4-6)
  • What happens if the father has not invalidated the vow that she made while as a person of his household and she then gets married? We see that on the day the husband hears of the vow he may invalidate it. And because he has restricted her G-d will forgive her. (verses 7-9)
  • Then it gives us the example of a widow or divorced woman, anything she prohibits herself of by an oath she is obligated to uphold. (verse 10)
  • Now finally, the vows and oaths of a woman who is married; if a woman makes a vow or oath and the husband does not object then her promises are valid. However, if he objects then anything that comes out of her mouth is invalid, and G-d will forgive her because her husband restricted her. This is pretty much the same as a girl with a father. (verses 11-13)

And that’s the point that hurts many of the feminists, and I’m not going to try to limit the pain people feel in that they see that women historically were often treated like property transferred from father to husband. And I will politely listen as people in their pain say “this isn’t fair that men were able to interfere in the decisions of women from birth to death.” But this isn’t exactly true.

Notice there is one category of women that cannot have their vows and oaths overruled here, that is the widow and the divorcée. It is this third category that is going to show us the reason why involvement is and isn’t allowed. On the surface it may seem like an issue of respect as to why this is different for a formerly married woman, you don’t ask a person who has become a “lady” in her own right to have to be monitored by someone else so she is thus exempt.

But if we think about it logically we see a very sublime reason; all the other class of women their vows and oaths effect someone else. As a “minor” or as a wife making promises of offerings at the Temple is obligating her father or husband to pay up, of course he should be allowed to have a say in the matter. For a father, say for example he has a child that takes upon themselves extreme fasting as their vow (a quite common one by the way) the father can not only object, but his objection also pardons the child from being held accountable by G-d if they don’t follow through and it’s just a fad. Another one I have even seen among religious people who have gone off the deep end is that they fast too much and they forget to feed their children because they don’t eat themselves; a husband has a right to say, no this isn’t okay and it has to stop, and G-d will forgive her for breaking the vow. And this is the common theme that goes on is that G-d will forgive these women if someone steps in. And of course following G-d’s example, these men should forgive these women.

Bottom Line: Women Can Make Vows and Oaths

But before anyone gets hurt feelings I want us to step back for a minute and look at this in its entirety, the Talmudic way. What do we again see that is common factor about all of this as well? At this point in history it’s hard for us to see what some people saw so clearly then, and even then its very cleaver how we are distracted with the fine points that men and women both miss the main point.

We open up with men being given the right to make vows and oaths. These vows can be made at any time, and in any place. One does not need prior permission or an intermediary. There is no limitations as to why a person may vow, and as we see it can be a vow to G-d or an oath to restrict oneself.

What we learn of the women is that the same is true for her, except that a women who is in the house of her father or husband may have her vows annulled. Let me spell that out for you, the Torah is fast talking past the point that it is doing something that is almost unthinkable in this point in history by giving women the ability to make vows and oaths, saying they do not need prior permission or the sanction of state or priest. They can make them at any time and any place. For what ever reason they may make a vow or oath. Yes, there is one restriction, but they are given the ability nonetheless and it is wholly valid and ordered by G-d that they have that right.

But the nature of the situation when it comes to vows is that they usually entail someone promising something impressive and great. But most often these days it’s a serious self-restriction or deprivation that one vows to their own self.

Historically, making oaths like this were very common at that point in history. People made oaths for everything. Sometimes, in formal circles people made oaths just out of the blue to impress theirs guests; I know it sounds childish and it is. It was a colloquial way of exaggerating that made it impossible for people to really put trust in promises. People didn’t know when someone was telling the truth our just speaking to make themselves look good.

But most often, like in the lives of so many mothers, there were the oaths made under pressure; oaths for divine intervention. Vows that are made at an ill child’s bedside, or when one gets a tragic message from a family member (G-d forbid such things). And this is the reason some of our sages hold as to why this clause allows that a woman’s oaths can be annulled, because as an example women like mothers often dealt with the real disasters that befell the family. If the children went hungry, if someone was sick in the family, if the bill collectors were bugging all day, it was mom that was going to have to deal with real anguish and be most prone to make vows of desperation. Someone had to be able to step in and remind her she is making way too big of a promise.

So our chapter sums it up by giving us a display of the endgame, what it looks like when all applied:

“All vows and oaths

of a restrictive oath that embitters the soul

her husband can uphold them

and her husband may annul it”

| Kol-neder vechol-shvu’at

| isar le’anot nafesh

| ishah yekimenu

| ve’ishah yeferenu.

Numbers 30:15

And here is where we again get our idea reaffirmed, these types of vows are ones that embitter the soul and deprive the person. This is a key and central line, we are talking about people making vows that restrict a person and makes their life miserable in a way to try to atone or show devotion.

Now bear with me for a minute as I hope to tie this together for you. I will be one of the first to admit to my feminist friends, the bible is not equal when it comes to gender inclusion. In fact it doesn’t mention women for the most part unless it really has to. This we can all agree on, right? And if the bible was using it’s normal tone, if it was talking about the responsibilities of a minor it would normally mention a son. If we were talking about the honor of the family it would normally talk about the husband, not the wife. But it is my opinion this chapter uses general terms for relating to people because its making a point, not talking about specific people or genders. Look at the words it uses: ish (man), ishah (woman); ishah (wife), ish (husband); ishah (her husband). The meaning only becomes apparent when we consider each term in connection to the relationships and roles of each person described.

I am of the opinion this is applying a principal by example and parable. The reason it uses the example of a daughter and a wife is because these people cannot be misconstrued as “autonomous” people, whose decisions and vows have no consequence on the rest of the family. This is just an example taken to its most extreme but logical end, using the best appropriate examples. All our rabbis agree this is an example of something, and I agree; just stating that the principal is greater than the puppet examples used in this presentation.

If we look at it from this perspective this chapter takes on a way different meaning, and it holds a real world application that we can utilize today in order to keep this mitzvah. Let me explain in conclusion.

Keeping Silent Means Affirming a Vow

One of the first things we are told in our parsha, when the example is a daughter, is that if the father stays silent upon hearing her vow then she is bound by it. Why, because he is tacitly agreeing to the vow; by his silence he is implying that he approves and agrees with the vow. The same is in the case of a married woman, our text summarizes this principle:

“And if the husband remains silent

from day to day

he will have let all her vows stand

or any oath upon her he will have upheld

because he kept silent on the day he heard.”

| Ve’im-hacharesh yacharish lah ishah

| miyom el-yom

| vehekim et-kol-nedareiha

| o et-kol-esareiha asher aleiha hekim otam

| ki-hecherish lah beyom shom’o.

Numbers 30:15

I don’t know how I can stress this but the word above, hekim which bears the meaning “to let stand,” to sustain, or uphold, also means to establish as well. By keeping silent it is as though he is making this promise himself. He is considered in agreement. Day after day if he watches the suffering of the vow and doesn’t object, of course he agrees because any decent person would say “enough is enough, this really isn’t necessary.”

Let us consider the nature of promises here. As I had pointed out in the beginning, vows and oaths can be made towards G-d or towards ones self. What ever they are, they are a way of us causing bitterness to ourselves. In this day and age, because people don’t often give the appropriate consideration of G-d they think they don’t have to worry about vows. They can’t see all the vows and oaths they make to themselves and upon themselves, ones that embitter their lives. These vows are also vows made in desperation, and often times they are vows to not do that again, or not feel that way again, to not act that way anymore, etc. A broken heart promises not to love again. An obese person promises not to eat that anymore. These type of things are vows too, ones often made out of emotion and which one cannot possibly keep.

And there are some vows in which we should not ever have to keep. For a moment I want to bring our attention to another example in the Tanach when comes to vows. We are at the end of Mosheh’s leadership and they are about to move into the age of the judges. During this period there was the infamous story of Yiftach (Jephtha) in Judges chapters 10-11. Most of us will know the story, he vows that if G-d will give him victory in war he will sacrifice the first thing that comes to meet him when he returns home. It turns out his most beloved daughter came out to great him. Of course she wasn’t sacrificed like an animal, our tradition tells us she became a monastic virgin because human sacrifice is forbidden by Torah; but that’s besides the point, vows of chastity are considered cruel and merit-less in our culture where G-d calls us to be fruitful and understands it’s not good for us to be alone. The father is rightfully harshly criticized for not breaking his vow, as he could have just repented for his wrong. But instead he holds to his vow because he made a promise and he can’t go back on it (Judges 10:31). Mostly because he wanted to save face, to keep his honor. Surprisingly, many of our sages even go as so far as to criticize the daughter as well because she agreed in the end to go along with it and honor his vow; she agreed and affirmed it, then saw it through even though it wasn’t right. This vow though caused so much pain that we are told the young ladies of Israel would go up to weep with her year after year because she remained a virgin.

Now this is where some Talmud knowledge on the part of my more progressive friends would be helpful to put this issue of vows into perspective. It wasn’t only the vows of women that could be nullified. In Midrash Rabbah Genesis 60 we learn specifically about this through the story of Yiftach, it tells us that not only was he and his daughter responsible, but so was someone else; Pinchas, the kohen gadol (High Priest) at the time. Whereas we never find a punishment for Yiftach for his vow, we are told that Pinchas is punished because he did not annul the vows. The midrash bluntly and matter-of-factly tells us that the local priests, or Pinchas as high priest was able to annul the vow. He was in a role of respect and authority and needed to speak out, but he didn’t. Whereas Yiftach was too proud of himself to go to Pinchas to annul the vow, Pinchas in the end held the responsibility because he should have gone to Yiftach instead when he didn’t go, the buck stopped with him. By remaining silent our Midrash tells us that he was punished by G-d, because in his silence he affirmed this horrible oath which caused pain literally to the entire generation.

Sometimes the vows and oaths we take on in our lives are painful and ridiculous, not just for us but also painful for others as well as they watch us struggle and suffer through it. What we learn from this parsha is that there is always room to be corrected by someone we are in relationship with and accountable to because we also include them in our anguish.

And likewise when we see people in suffering we should stop their suffering, we need to use our clout and report with them to tell them to give themselves a break. Help them shoulder their burden to put it in perspective for them. Express to them because you are part of their lives their pain effects you, and you want them to know they don’t have to expect so much out of themselves.

Lastly, our parsha leaves us with two deep points. In its final verse of instruction (as verse 17 just repeats the players again) and gives us a good way getting those who harshly hold on to their strict vows to let go:

“And if he makes them null and void

after hearing them

he shall bear her guilt.”

| Ve’im-hafer yafer otam

| acharei shom’o

| venasa et-avonah.

Numbers 30:17

We can read this two ways, consistent with the rest of the chapter; if someone else nullifies their vows they are not held responsible for it, they meant the best in making the vow, but someone has restricted them from following through so they are atoned for and even credited that their heart was in the right place.

And then there is the second suggested meaning, namely that we can nullify a vow at anytime. Some of our sages teach that even if in that day a loved one affirm the vow and then changes their mind and nullifies it after the fact, the person who vowed it is again not responsible as they were restricted. It’s never too late to speak up! Use the clout and respect that a loved one has in you to convince them to let you lighten their load. If someone you love is stuck in a vow or oath they wont let go of, the best thing we can do and the Torah way is to tell them its okay, G-d understands and will forgive them. Express to them that your so confident of this that your willing to take the blame yourself and bear the guilt if necessary. You would be surprised how quickly that level of concern melts the heart of someone!

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