Mator-Massei 5779 – Words

By: Michael Carr

How did we arrive at todays parshat Matot-Massei from the Exodus?

Here is a quick and a very abbreviated summary of highlights:  130 to 400 years of  enslavement in Egypt; approximately 600,000 Israelites flee in Exodus from Egypt following plagues; witness miracles from G-d (like waters parting, thunderous clouds);  collude to build a golden calf; Moses becomes the first to connect with “the cloud” and brings down written tablets of 10 Commandments from Mt  Sinai; tablets smashed and a new updated set is re-released; fast forward through 12 spies – 10 of whom agreed on a very dim outlook of a not so promised land;  however two spies Joshua and Caleb are chosen to lead the Israelites into the promised land because they bring back a good report about the land ahead and believe G-d will help the Israelites succeed to create a land free of idolatry, one based on Torah in a land flowing with milk and honey; then 40 years of wandering; and by today’s parshat Matot-Massei (Matot means’tribe’ & Massei means ‘journey’) the wandering has almost ended.

In this parashat Moses describes the commandments of oaths and vows in ongoing oral law; the Israelites battle the Midianites; the tribes of Reuben and Gad negotiate with Moses to allow their people to dwell outside of the Land of Israel for the sake of their livestock and their families (Moses tells the leaders of the tribes that they need to put children, families and education first).

This parshat got me thinking about how laws/commandments were actually communicated throughout all 12 tribes of Israel.  For example in today’s parshat – Moses negotiates with the tribes of Reuben and Gad and directs the leaders of these tribes to pay attention to vows and oaths saying, “This is the word that G-d has commanded. If a man/(woman) makes a vow to G-d or swears saying, “This is the word that G-d has commanded. If a man/woman makes a vow to G-d or swears an oath, he/she must fulfill their word.” Further, Moses states through G-d that “A [man/woman] has commanded. If a man/woman makes a vow to God or swears an oath, he must fulfill his word.” Further Moses states, from God, that a man/woman shall do whatever has come forth from their mouth.”

This is an example of the Oral Tradition and in addition to it being a commandment, and also like many of the commandments that have come before these, it seems that the words are an oral contract since very few if anyone other than perhaps Moses knew how to write or read. So how did the words about oaths and vows that Moses communicated to the tribes of Reuben and Gad get to the other Tribes?

And what is the oral law and how did the written Torah come about?

Before actual written words – say 3300 years ago – there was – what some might refer to today as the ‘Internet Super Highway of the Day’  called the Oral Law. That is when G-d spoke with the Israelites from a cloud and gave us guidelines and a covenant for life.

Originally the Oral Law of Torah was communicated from father to son and from teacher to  disciple (thus the “Oral” Law). The Oral Torah was handed down by word of mouth from Moses to Joshua, then to the Elders, the Prophets, and the Great Assembly. The Great Assembly was the Sanhedrin which was the highest council of Jews consisting of 71 members and exercising authority from about 2nd century b.c. where all laws that were derived from scripture or logic were formally accepted by the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was led by Ezra, at the beginning of the time of the Second Temple, which created ‘legislation’ that would make Judaism viable in the diaspora. The Sanhedrin was the ‘Search Engine Optimization’ of the time where laws/commandments were established and communicated to the Israelite community.

Some 1800 years ago, a Rabbi Judah Prince concluded that because of Israelite Exile, the Oral Law would be forgotten if it were not recorded on paper.  So the Rabbi assembled scholars of his generation and compiled the Mishnah, a (shorthanded) collection of oral teachings.

Because Oral Law is so vast and of course so infinite, it was initially transcribed into three areas including:

1) Laws given to Moses at Sinai (commandments);2) Thirteen principles of Torah Exegesis (how one is to study and understand Torah); and 3) Edicts which are a combination of Torah Law and Rabbinical interpretation/guidelines (for example important words from the Oral Torah law/commandment state: “Keep the Sabbath Holy” though there is no explicit instruction on how to do this and how we keep the Sabbath holy.  So guidelines/rules such as stop all work before sundown through sundown, challah, candles, wine, etc. which originated from Rabbinic guidelines and interpretation of the initial commandment).

Some say that Oral Torah is far more important than written Torah because the written Torah is only a snap shot/picture/outline or guideline of the 613 commandments. However, oral and written Torah work together.

In any case – it’s what we do with the text, vocalization (trope), and translation of the Torah, and we depend on tradition for its interpretation.

Who actually wrote the first words of Torah during the time of Oral Law?

In some cases it appeared that G-d wrote the Ten Commandments and Moses was the messenger that brought them down from Sinai and delivered the words.

From My Jewish Learning: “VeZot ha Torah” when chanted forHagbah and Gelilah — indicates that this is the Torah that Moses set before the people by the mouth of G-d, through the hand of Moses. By the way, as we know today, the phrase (VeZot ha Torah)….is recited each time the Torah is raised to be returned to the Aron Kodesh (holy ark). To emphasize the significance of the statement, some may point with zitzit or bow at the Torah as if to say or proclaim: “This is it – admittedly a copy written by a scribe, but word for word and letter for letter identical with the one transcribed by Moses as G-d dictated it.”

So what can we take away from today’s parshat?   When you give your word make sure you understand the consequences or costs of not following through. Bring light to your words through actions that are urgent, sincere, generous and personal.  Your words in the form of a vow or oath are like a promise. G-d did not promise stability when creating the covenant with Abraham.  He promised that if we believed and followed G-d’s word he would guide and protect us and give us a land flowing with milk and honey.

May all of our promises vows and oaths bring peace, health and healing for ourselves, our families and our community.