Matot-Massei – 5781 – Vows & Oaths

By: Michael Carr

In today’s Parasha 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. In fact, Moses tells the leaders of the tribes that they need to put children, families and education first.

Today let’s briefly look at the commandments of oaths and vows and why G-d wanted the leaders of the 12 tribes to practice and embrace them.

According to Encyclopedia.com, a vow is a personal promise, where an oath can be a sworn promise made before an institutional authority. Oaths serve as objective guarantees of what is promised. When swearing to tell the truth, one guarantees that what one says is true.

We may think of an oath when one is sworn into a public office to protect the public or when one is sworn in before taking the stand as a defendant or witness in a courtroom or there is also an oath of enlistment for military service members. While we’re on the oath track let’s remember the Hippocratic oath: One of the oldest oaths in history, written by Hippocrates is still held practiced by physicians: to treat the ill to the best of one’s ability, to preserve a patient’s privacy, to teach the secrets of medicine to the next generation, and so on.

Examples of vows can be found from marriage to Buddhism amongst monks (just realized that this is a weird grouping – that is marriage and monks). At any rate, Monks take a vow of silence in order to create proper language and speech. A belief they hold is that not saying everything that comes to mind will help prevent expressing harmful words. As a result, monks may tend to choose words that ‘best suit the moment’ (BuddhismZone.org).

Further, observing a vow of silence can lead to promoting listening abilities. So monks train themselves through a vow of silence to speak less and listen more. By doing so, it said that they can hear others out which in turn helps create not only growth toward enlightenment but also trust in the individual and spoken words.
Today’s Parasha is about trust. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks stated, “If trust breaks down, social relationships break down, and then society depends on law enforcement agencies or some other use of force. When force is widely used, society is no longer free. The only way free human beings can form collaborative and cooperative relationships without recourse to force is by the use of verbal undertakings honored by those who make them.”

This was true for the leaders of the 12 tribes particularly during the battles of the day (as in ‘I have your back’) as it is for those that fight to defend freedom throughout the world. And what were the Israelites fighting for? Perhaps it was enduring freedom they sought since fleeing Egypt.

Rabbi Sacks also points out that, “freedom needs trust; trust needs people to keep their word; and keeping your word means treating words as holy AND vows and oaths as sacrosanct. Only under very special and precisely formulated circumstances can you be released from your undertakings. That is why, as the Israelites approached the holy land where they were to create a free society, they had to be reminded of the sacred character of vows and oaths.”
The temptation to break your word when it fits the moment is easy unless one believes in ‘their word’. That is why a basic belief in an omnipresent and omnipotent G-d who oversees all we think, say and do, and who holds us accountable to our commitments is a key element of this Parasha.

Another example of the general belief in G-d is quoted by John Locke, a 17th century English philosopher who believed that ‘citizenship should not be extended to atheists’ because, essentially, how could one trust another who did not believe in G-d?

It seems that laws about vows and oaths at the end of Bamidbar, as the Israelites approach the holy land, are intentional more than an accident or mere coincidence. A free society depends on trust. Trust depends on keeping your word. Perhaps that is how derech ertez came to be a key quality of character among us by not only our behaviors but also the ideas, language and words we used to create our culture.

Rabbi Eliyahu Saffran sums up the Parasha message best with this quote “While oaths and vows are commandments of Torah, “we would do well to remember the Jewish principle of “derech eretz kadma l’Torah” – meaning that “decency, and kind behavior should precede Torah.”.

So what can we take away from today’s Parsha? 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 our promises vows and oaths bring peace, health and healing for ourselves, our families and our community. Amen and good Shabbos.