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Torah Sparks

July 6, 2002 - 5762

Prepared by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations

Annual Cycle: Num. 30:2-36:13; Hertz, p. 702; Etz Hayim, p. 941
Triennial Cycle I: Num. 30:2-31:54; Hertz, p. 702; Etz Hayim, p. 941
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4, 4:1-2; Hertz, p. 725; Etz Hayim, p. 972

Torah Portion Summary

(30:2-17) Laws concerning vows made by women.

(31:1-54) The war against Midian, including the distribution of spoils.

(32:1-32) The Reubenites and Gadites ask for the land east of the Jordan. Moses agrees after they promise to participate in the conquest of the land of Canaan.

(33:1-49) The Israelites' itinerary during their wilderness wanderings.

(33:50-34:15) An additional warning to uproot idol worship from Canaan; instructions on dividing Canaan among nine and a half tribes.

(34:16-35:8) A list of the tribal heads. Forty-eight cities are set aside for the Levites.

(35:9-34) Laws concerning the cities of refuge. Someone who kills someone else by accident was protected from avenging family once he had reached the city of refuge. This section also deals with judicial procedures.

(36:1-13) Final discussions ruling that the daughters of Zelophehad could inherit their father's portion of the Land.

Discussion Theme: Give Me Your Word

If a man vows a vow to God, or swears an oath to bind a bond upon his soul, he shall not violate his word, for all that has gone forth from his lips he shall do (Numbers 30:3)

  1. Words are cheap... We send more words out into the universe all the time. Long gone are the days when the writing of words actually took the painstaking time of careful execution with fountain pen and ink... Being able to exercise the "delete" command allows us to be much less careful in our approach to writing words. Imagine how much more careful we would be if the use of a feather quill might allow the reader to see our initial intentions beneath any cross-outs. In the ancient Near East, significant documents were chiseled into stone. A word chiseled into existence is a carefully crafted word. And that is why (today's Torah Reading) Matot offers us a precious gift. Matot does not treat words as cheap or expendable, but as the incredibly powerful blocks upon which an entire society stands or falls. Matot focuses upon the most powerful kind of word that a person can utter: a neder, "vow". A neder is an extraordinarily powerful kind of word, because it is not a word of description. It is a word of action... Matot reminds you that you can't simply "delete" the words you have uttered. (Rabbi Stacy K. Offner, quoted in The Women's Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, pp. 315-16)
  2. "No" is an oath, and "Yes" is an oath (Talm, Shevuot 6.3)
  3. God said to Israel, "Be careful what you vow, and do not become addicted to making vows, for whoever is so addicted, will, in the end, sin by breaking his oath, and he who breaks his oath denies Me without hope of pardon" (Midrash, Tanhuma, Mattot 79a)
  4. Kol Nidre is a prayer for the nullification of unfulfilled promises and broken vows to God (not to other people). Under normal conditions, and especially under precarious circumstances, people make promises to God (resolutions), and take vows which they later find themselves unable to keep. Recognizing that the broken word spoken silently with God profanes the soul, the Jew desires to have such vows nullified on The Day of Atonement so that he/she may face God with a clear conscience.

    (However, such nullification of ones word does not take place between one person and another.)

    The story is told of a certain Rabbi Meir who, on the eve of Yom Kippur, ascended onto the bimah of his synagogue and said to his congregants: " I know that you forgive one another now and are making all kinds of promises, giving your word, but tomorrow you may resume your usual ways. Do you promise to abide by your resolutions to each other?" "We will," they promised. Rabbi Meir turned toward the Holy Ark and began to chant "Kol Nidre" (knowing anyway deep in his heart that their vows would be indeed be broken because that is part of the human condition). (Rabbi Louis Barrish, High Holiday Liturgy, p. 100f)

"Sparks" Discussion:

Examine the literature of our religious tradition and you will learn that there is a great deal of ambiguity as to the positive value of making a vow. For certain, the seriousness of doing so cannot be underestimated. In fact, an entire tractate in the Talmud is called Nedarim - "Vows". Nonetheless, one wonders if vows (seriously-taken) can help solidify certain important moments or occasions in life.

In the Christian Faith, for instance, at a marriage ceremony there takes place what is called an "exchanging of vows". Should there be some element like that formally introduced into the Jewish marriage ceremony? Are we missing out on something? Or maybe, we don't want to give the marriage an "ayin hara".

When else would you suggest that a seriously-taken vow could be used in a very positive way?

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