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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT MATTOT - BIRKAT HAHODESH
July 26, 2008 – 23 Tammuz 5768

Annual: Numbers 30:2 – 32:42 (Etz Hayim, p. 941; Hertz p. 702)
Triennial: Numbers 30:2 – 31:54 (Etz Hayim, p. 941; Hertz p. 702)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2;3 (Etz Hayim, p. 968; Hertz p. 710)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Moses instructs the heads of the Israelite tribes about vows and oaths. When a woman makes a vow, it can be annulled by her father or her husband on the day he learns of it. If this is not done, a woman’s vow is binding and must be fulfilled completely, just like a man’s vow.

Twelve thousand men, one thousand from each tribe, are picked to form the force that will wage war against Midian. The Israelites kill the Midianite males and take the women and children captive. Moses becomes angry that the women – the very ones who enticed the Israelites to sin – were spared. He orders the soldiers to kill the women and male children, leaving only the girls alive. Moses then tells the soldiers they must undergo a purification ritual. Eleazar instructs them about purifying objects seized as booty. The captured property is divided among the warriors and the rest of the Israelites.

The tribes of Reuben and Gad ask to be allowed to settle on the east side of the Jordan, where there is ample land for their animals. They, along with the half-tribe of Manasseh, are given permission to do so once they promise to join the rest of the Israelites in the battle for the land of Canaan, on the other side of the Jordan.

Swear to God

Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the Lord has commanded: If a man makes a vow or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips. (Bamidbar 30:2-3)

  1. All of the Torah depends on “this is what the Lord has commanded,” this being the most fundamental of all principles, namely that a person should not violate that which he has accepted upon himself as a vow or oath. Without this, there is no basis for the entire Torah, which we accepted as a covenant. (Hatam Sofer [Rabbi Moses Schreiber, 1762-1839, Pressburg, Hungary])
  2. 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. (Tanhuma Mattot 79a)
  3. Rav Dimi the brother of Rav Safra said: He who vows, even if he fulfills his vow, is called a sinner. Rav Zevid asked: And the proof? ‘You incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing’ (Devarim 23:23); hence, if you do not refrain, you do incur guilt. (Nedarim 77b)
  4. We have been taught that Rabbi Nathan said: He who vows is as though he built a high place [for an idol] and he who fulfills his vow [rather than seeking to be released from it] is as though he brought an offering upon it. (Nedarim 22a)
  5. When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. For He has no pleasure in fools; what you vow, fulfill. (Kohelet 5:3) The verse states that the Lord has no pleasure in fools who imagine they are doing His will by making many vows in order to spur themselves to fulfill a precept. Lacking prudence and understanding, they do not stop to think that perhaps it may turn out impossible for them to fulfill them all. On the contrary, they imagine they will be credited with the good intention that they had at the time of the vow. (Ramban [Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain])

Sparks for Discussion

The vows and oaths described here are not merely promises or pious wishes. Once a person made a vow in the prescribed form, his vow – e.g., not to eat apples – took on for him the force of halakhah and eating an apple would be no different from eating a ham sandwich. Halakhah does provide a procedure for annulling vows.

Why do you think people would choose to make vows? Why do the commentators have such a negative view of vows? What is their concern? Why does Rabbi Nathan equate fulfilling one’s vow with a great sin? What can we learn from this about the promises we make to God, to other people, and to ourselves?

But She Made Me Do It!

Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord’s community was struck by the plague. (Bamidbar 31:16)

  1. They also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword (Bamidbar 31:8) What was Balaam doing there? He came to take his reward for the slaughter of the 24,000 Israelites he caused to die [by the plague]. (Bamidbar Rabbah 22:4)
  2. On his way back home Balaam passed through Midian and heard how the Israelites had committed harlotry with the daughters of Moab and had thereby been led into idolatry. He then realized that this was the only sure method of undermining Israel. He therefore advised the Midianites to send their choicest maidens to seduce the Israelites into idolatry. In this way they would forfeit the Almighty’s protection. (Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto, 1800-1865, Italy)
  3. Now let us try to understand why the Torah deferred mentioning Balaam’s complicity in the matter of Peor till after his death at the hands of the Israelites... Evidently the Torah wanted to teach us a special lesson. Though it was Balaam who instigated the daughters of Midian to strike a blow at the purity of Jewish family life, though he was the evil genius who thought out the plan, the moral responsibility ultimately rested on the Israelites themselves... Every individual is responsible for his own acts. Provocation does not free the victim of responsibility. (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, p. 377)

Sparks for Discussion

As Nehama Leibowitz reminds us, each person is responsible for his or her own acts. Even if Balaam was behind the plot to entice the Israelites into harlotry and idolatry, no Israelite could claim that it was not his fault, he was just minding his own business until a Midianite woman came along and seduced him. He had the power and the responsibility to refuse. This is why 24,000 Israelites died by a plague.

If this is the case, why did Balaam (and the Midianite women) deserve death? Couldn’t he claim that while he had come up with the plan, the Israelites could have said no – he hadn’t forced anyone to sin? What, if any, responsibility do those who tempt others to sin bear? Is a person who tries to entice another to sin guilty if the object of his temptation refuses to go along?


 
 
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