Tag Archives: Vows

Parshat Chayei Sarah (2012)

Parshat Chayei Sarah
Genesis 23:1-25:18

The Points Less Talked About, But Probably Most Thought About

This section of the Torah begins to transition and detail the lives of many people very quickly. It moves at such a breakneck speed that often times we can get carried away by the torrent of this story. It moves so fast we can pass through it without taking too good of a look at the specifics of it. But I would like us to step back and examine parts of this narrative, allowing ourselves to ask questions that ordinary we wouldn’t entertain too long. But don’t feel bad, if you have thought about it then chances are so have our rabbis!

In our last look at this parsha we learned about the death of Sarah Immeinu – Sarah our Mother, and Abraham’s acquisition of the town of Chevron (Hebron). He did not only acquire the cave of Machpelah as a burial site, but he would also purchased the entire town and orchards that surrounded it as his permanent heritage. (see Parshat Chayei Sarah 2011)

“And Abraham was old,

he became advanced in age,

and Hashem had blessed Abraham

with everything.”

| Ve’Avraham zaken

| ba bayamim

| va’Hashem berach et-Avraham

| bakol

Genesis 24:1

This is an odd statement considering that Abraham has just lost his life-partner, Sarah his beloved wife. This is a bad time to say he had it all. Even more odd to some is the Rashi for this text:

Had blessed Abraham with everything:

Bekol‘ (with everything)

is numerically equivalent

to ‘ben‘ (son).

Since he had a son,

he had to find him a wife.

ברך את אברהם בכל: |

בכל |

עולה בגימטריא |

בן, |

ומאחר שהיה לו בן |

היה צריך להשיאו אשה: |

Rashi for Genesis 24:1

How can someone who has lost someone so special to him be said to be blessed with everything? And what does this commentary by Rashi have to do with finding Isaac a wife?

The answer is kind of obvious if we consider it, sure Abraham has lost the true love of his life, his dear wife Sarah. But considering everything Abraham realized that he really had it all in this life. They not only got to spend their best years together, but she also gave him a proper son of noble birth to carry on a legacy. Even in her demise she extended a blessing, it was only through her death that Abraham was able to properly purchase land and establish himself and his descendants as true residents. (again, see Parshat Chayei Sarah 2011) He now had everything, his heart was full, he lacked nothing at all. Sarah had helped him acquire a son and a heritage to pass on to him.

The Rashi to this text draws our attention to the fact that the word “bekol” and “ben” have the same gematria, with the sum of 52. What does this mean? Some take the highly speculative meaning, that hints that he was complete having both sons and daughters as progeny, he had all (kol) forms of children. Others suggest more simply, as Rashi seems to be saying here, that his son (ben) was his all (bkol); this son Isaac was his everything. He was given this legacy and heritage by the sacrifice and partnership of a good wife, Sarah. Therefore he considered it, his son was now his all and he wanted him to have everything there was to be enjoyed in life. He need to find him a life-partner as well, he needed a suitable wife as well. Abraham would marry again as we will see if we were to jump to the next chapter (see Genesis 25:1), he wasn’t just being romantic in his old age because of his lack of action. Isaac needed the happiness of a life-partner.

And as elderly Jewish parents tend to do, it is true that he started meddling in order to find his son a wife. This task was not to be taken lightly so he asks his chief servant, identified by the Talmud and Rashi as Eliezer the personal servant of Abraham. He had to turn this task over to someone close to him, because this was a special task with special considerations.

Abraham had come to possess a land, but only now and finally after his wife’s death. Before he was just a squatter. It was important that Isaac not leave the land behind so that others could come and occupy that land. The only way he could keep the land was by successfully settling it. However, the inhabitants of the land did not seem suitable for his son in marriage. Their ways of worship were known to be brutal and their ways inhospitable towards others. He needed someone closer to his own temperament and that of his wife Sarah in order for his son to respond and succeed in marriage. He needed to arrange a marriage to someone from his own cultural background, without letting his son go there to their place of origins in person to find this wife. They could not risk becoming displaced as absentee landlords. They had to go find Isaac as wife with just a handwritten list of his possessions; think about that, Eliezer had to arrange a marriage with just Isaac’s credit report score on hand and thousands of years before he could even take a Poloroid picture of what the boy looks like!

Now for a moment I need to bring our attention back to the idea of religious worship playing an issue here. Abraham is the founder of a new monotheistic faith, he has a small following but much influence. Not everyone seems as convinced by all the facets of this Abrahamic faith, such as Abraham’s younger cousin Lot. But there were people who were true believers. Among them is Eliezer, the servant. (see Talmud Bavli, Yoma 28; Rashi) Let us look at this interesting person just for a second, he tends to be another person that gets too easily overlooked by simple readers.

The reason that we assume that it was Eliezer here is because the text tells us that this appointed man was, “zekan beito / the most senior in his house.” (Genesis 24:2) Though we most often think of Eliezer as a slave, he was more family than servant by this point in his life. So much to the point that in the previous chapter, before the birth of Isaac, Abraham attests that his heir will end up being this “Demasek Eliezer / Demascus Eliezer.” (Genesis 15:2-3) He’s not a relative, but he’s the closest thing to an eldest son that Abraham has once he separates from Lot until the birth of Isaac.

We must deeply consider the fact that at this point in Eliezer’s life he is thoroughly acculturated in this new Hebrew faith, and the ways they are to live. If we look at his actions we see him as almost an aloof Jeeves the butler, but instead he is actually more like Albert helping run the Bat-cave. He is dedicated to the mission and his values are in line with that of the Abrahamic way. We don’t need to look too far to see this. If we move forward into the story, to the point where Eliezer meets the potential bride’s father, you will see that he has to be pleaded with to come into their home, and for his camels to rest and loosen muzzles for food. It’s not because he is too good for their provisions, its something else all together. He is like his master Abraham that doesn’t take anything from anyone so as to deprive them, he keeps the animals muzzled to not have the appearance of stealing by eating from someones open fields. He allows them only when they offer. Secondly, he doesn’t come into the house until after they had cleared the house. Rashi says it doesn’t mean they cleaned the house but instead they cleared out the idols from the house. He wasn’t being snooty about their home he was being be particular about his faith. He was a true believer through and through. (see Genesis 24:31-32; Rashi)

Eliezer is not just anyone. He is part of the household, therefore was circumcised along with Abraham. Not just that, now at this time taking Abraham’s order he is forced to vow, and vow in a strange way. Now ladies I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, but we need to think about this like men. Something personal is going on here. Our text says that Eliezer is told by Abraham, “Sim-na yadeycha tachat yerechi / place your hand under my thigh.” (24:2) What do we suppose is going on here?

Now the Rashi for this text makes an interesting point while explain what is happening. He says we should take notice of how when one normally takes a vow they do so on a Torah. Even tefillin will do, as they are a ritual and holy object that are sanctified by a sacred act. Rashi says that the first mitzvah, and actually if we think about it ourselves it is the only mitzvah that was given to Abraham so far. Again I stress, this is was their only command to follow so far; circumcision. And it wasn’t just any sign of faith, it was a painful sign of faith. Both Abraham and Eliezer experienced it as aged men! It meant something to them. And since there was nothing else to swear on, that was their sign; in order to make a promise he was told to grab hold and swear by that scar.

Now before any of our delicate readers faint at the sight of some old men seemingly being primal, I need to remind us all that there is a more intimate act in this strange vow. It’s not just men comparing scars and junk. Later in the Torah when it speaks about the descendants of Jacob, called Israel, it is going to say that they emanated from his thigh. (Genesis 46:26, Exodus 1:5) He is trying to make Eliezer have a tangible connection to the reality it’s not just up to him to make this lineage succeed, it’s up to him to care for like it’s his own. He is reminding Eliezer that he is as intimate as it gets, it is up to him guard his seed through this marriage and also guard the symbol of their faith. They cannot go backwards, just forward. He has to promise and show his compliance in the most hardcore way.

Now it was indeed a great honor for Eliezer to be sent out with Abraham’s caravan and all his wealth at his disposal. But this was a truly treacherous and lengthy journey, and one that might have seemed unnecessary. The Rashi to this texts also colors this aspect of the story telling us that Eliezer had a daughter, he figured why not just have Isaac marry her then? According to that midrash Abraham would not allow it because she would be a slave as her father was a slave. He couldn’t marry a slave, he needed to marry a free person. (see Rashi to Genesis 24:39; also verse 5)

What’s interesting is that our Torah stresses the seeming reluctance Eliezer has for going on this great journey according to his recount, but he goes anyhow. He doesn’t believe that a woman is going to follow him from the heart of the civilized fertile crescent over to the backwoods of Hebron. He’s not sure how he’s going to find this wife, but maybe the midrash is right and he is a bit bitter. So Abraham wants a noble wife? Whats wrong with a wife that is a servant, he must be thinking. Where would he find as hard-working and dedicated woman as his daughter? With this in mind he put for his test to G-d, he will know it was a sign when a woman comes and offers him water and also offers to water his camels.

Now I want us to think about it for a second. It may seem like Eliezer’s approach is a simple request, but he’s actually asking for something that is quite unlikely. Eliezer seems to be playing it safe. Consider it, if he can’t find a woman willing to come back then he is free of his vow. (verse 41) He is coming to the fountain just outside of the city of Nahor, one that the women would come to in the evening. He knows that a woman, be it a servant or noble woman, she is not going to be primarily interested in showing hospitality to him let alone attend his camels after their long day of activity. Also keep in mind the fact that as an unknown traveler he indeed needed to have hospitality shown to him by someone of stature before he could just make himself at ease. The odds and constraints seem stacked against him, one can almost see him ready to turn right back around.

Now for a moment I got to wonder what type of woman was he thought he was going to find out at the watering hole. Furthermore when you consider it, he is facing the danger of night approaching and he doesn’t want to be caught standing there like a drifter. Anyone would do tonight, but still you have to wonder about the type of person he is going to meet.

But no sooner does he get his wild test of fate out than he sees a woman and he becomes fixated with her. He begins to lunge in her direction as he sees her coming, and the reason is clear; he loses himself because she is “tovat mar’eh meod / she was very good to look at.” (verse 16) He’s sure she’s available, probably noticeable because her head is uncovered so he can get a good look at her. As she is coming up from filling her pitcher he asks her for a drink. Not only does she lower her pitcher to offer him a drink, but she also offers to give his camels water until they are no longer thirsty. The Torah continues with these words to describe how Eliezer reacted to this all:

“And the woman astonished him,

and he kept silent in order to know whether

Hashem had made his journey successful

or not.”

| Veha’ish mishta’eh lah

| macharish lada’at

| hahitsliach Hashem darko

| im-lo.

Genesis 24:21

Now why is he so astonished? He’s all “hista’ah” which means that he is surprised and in wonder of her; he is gasping at her because she’s a true beautiful young woman. This is what catches his attention and trips him up even before he is further astonished that she goes so far as to give him the time of day. She not only takes down her heavy pitcher of water to give him to drink, but then she goes on to give him water for the camels. She stunned him with beauty, but the thing that astonished him even more must have been the watering of the camels.

Now lets look at this act for a second, this watering of the camels is worth gawking at. It’s true that camels don’t really need much water, they have these amazing adaptations in their body that makes them able to withstand needing water. They can survive losing up to 25% of their body mass in sweating. Though they don’t store water in their humps like people believe, they have an advantage that no other mammal has, they have oval blood cells that enables them to literally hold on to more water on a cellular level. They are amazingly hearty animals. But she feels they need to drink. And if they need to drink, they most certainly drink. When they need water they consume it 30 – 40 gallons at a time!

Camel getting water from womenNow consider this for a second, here is this dainty little woman we suppose, someone who is a total knockout enough to have Eliezer stunned silent. She gives him some water and then starts bringing up some more for the camels, he has 10 camels. This is more than just a nice gesture. Honestly, I don’t know how much experience some of you souls have with manual labor, but water is exceedingly heavy. For those of you more pampered and cosmopolitan, a gallon of water weights over eight pound. Yes, water-weight is real. Shes not just laying a saucer out for your dog Toto. No these camels are some beasts, that are about to consume about 2,400lbs of water that she is going to draw herself. This is the real reason that he continues to gawk.

Eliezer must have forgotten all about his daughter. I’m sure she was lovely, and might have even had a strong back. But Eliezer found in this woman at the fountain the one that he wanted his master Isaac to have as a wife. She was both a beautiful and a strong person. Also, in this act she showed an amazing sense of hospitality as well that is only paralleled by Abraham and Sarah. So sure of the fact she is an appropriate match Eliezer seems to forget himself and places the jewelry upon her before he even asks who she is, he’s that convinced that she’s an exceptional woman.

Of course Eliezer fixes this fact in the story when he goes on his lengthy recount of it all. He’s in shock, he can’t help but ramble on. He faithfully tells every part, only correcting his foolish giving of the jewelry before asking who she was. He instead in his more composed, yet still awestruck account, he does the proper thing and asks her name before he starts giving her the equivalent of a wedding ring. It’s seems kind of punk rock to me, a nose ring and two gold bangles. But such is the custom to give a girl a token in ancient days, as in the present. Something to seal the deal, and in this case the ring was to be worn in the nose. (see Rashi to Genesis 24:47)

Yet I digress. We should not just ponder the character of this good man Eliezer. He was a truly faithful servant that was an upstanding man. One that through his deeds shows a true sense of duty to the Abraham’s cause, and faithfulness to express the message without theatrics. He is someone who gets no mention by name here but deserves a lot of honor.

And in this parsha we find not just a man worth taking a better look at, we also see a woman worth considering. This woman who has Eliezer so amazed further amazes him when he finds out that she actually a daughter of Betuel, a son of Nahor; she was a daughter of Milkah. She is a distant relative of Abraham, they are descendant from the same clan paternally. It is obvious that she is an appropriate match as they are even of the same culture so you can’t get better than that. She is a good apple off a rotten side of the family tree (Lot’s side of the family, see last week’s study), but has all the honorable traits that make her of the order of Abraham as well. Her name is Rivkah, or Rebekkah.

Interesting characters these two, Rivkah and Eliezer. Now just in case you aren’t convinced that Eliezer has made a good match, that he found some desert beast of a woman to drag back for Isaac to marry, we see that when she see Isaac walking in the field her delicate side comes out again. Rivka veils herself out of impulse. You have to wonder how big the grin was on Eliezer’s face as they approached, with him considering the entire way the strength of the character there was under that pretty little veil and tinny little frame.

Related links:

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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