The Matter of Vows
Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion
This shiur is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Aaron Wise z"l (whose yahrzeit is Tamuz 21), by the Wise and Etshalom families. Yehi Zikhro Barukh.
The Matter of Vows
By Rav Michael Hattin
Parashat Matot opens with a detailed description of the laws of vows that Moshe communicated at God's behest to the tribal leaders of the people of Israel. Whether man or woman, one who undertakes a vow to God must fulfill it, "in accordance with all that he spoke with his mouth" (Bemidbar 30:3). With respect to a certain category of vows, however, namely those that pertain to self-affliction, a woman may be released from the obligation of fulfillment if either her father (if she is not yet an adult) or else her husband demur on the day that she makes the pronouncement. The vows of a man, however, can only be released either by an expert judge or else by a panel of three less learned fellows.
The topic of vows that begins our Parasha may seem at first glance to be out of place, for the subject is preceded by the unrelated laws of the additional holiday sacrifices that concluded last week's reading of Parashat Pinchas, and succeeded by the equally unlinked matter of the retaliatory war against the Midianites. Why should the laws of vows be mentioned right now, and of what need is there for these laws to be especially communicated by Moshe to the "tribal leaders of the people of Israel" (30:2)? As we shall see, there appears to be definite foreshadowing at work in dictating the location as well as the setting of this particular passage. That is to say that after the account of the battle against the Midianites is concluded by the lengthy treatment of the subject of the spoils, the Torah introduces us to the unexpected request of the tribes of Gad and Reuven to settle with their massive flocks on the Jordan's eastern side. And it is precisely this final episode of the Parasha that necessitates the seemingly disjointed opening that concerns the fulfillment of vows.
A CONCISE OUTLINE OF THE CONTEXT
Recall that in the aftermath of their startling victory over the Amorite kings Sichon and Og, Israel found itself in possession of a huge swath of verdant territory in the Transjordan (21:21 22:1). That triumph had been followed in the text by the account of the unsuccessful attempt of anxious Balak king of Moav to check the people's advance, through the agency of the soothsayer Bil'am's ethereal spells of doom (22:2 24:25). In the end, though Bil'am's curses failed, the people of Israel succumbed to more mundane threats, namely the wiles of the Moavite women and the worship of their gods. If not for the courageous and zealous act of Pinchas the son of El'azar, all might have been lost (25:1 18).
Parashat Pinchas began with the account of taking a census of the men of military age among the people a sure indication of their proximity to the land and of the difficult task that lay ahead of engaging its inhabitants in battle (26:1 65). This was followed with the matter of Tzelofchad of Menashe's five daughters who passionately and persuasively argued before Moshe and the elders for a portion in the land (27:1 11), and then by the poignant appointment of Yehoshua as successor to the aged lawgiver, "so that he might lead them out (to battle) and lead them in (from battle), so that God's congregation not become like sheep that have no shepherd" (27:12 23). Finally the Parasha concluded with a discussion of the additional holiday sacrifices, a category of offerings that was incumbent upon the people only after they had entered Canaan and settled it (28:1 30:1, and see the commentary of the Ramban, 13th century, Spain on 28:2).
THE REQUEST OF REUVEN AND GAD TO SETTLE EAST OF THE YARDEN
The effect of the lengthy whole, then, from Parashat Chukat until the opening of our own Parashat Matot, was to trace the dynamic contours of the end of the wilderness wanderings, as Israel finally drew close to the borders of the Promised Land and made concrete preparations for entering it. And after Midian, a hostile nomadic tribe who had been in league with Balak all along, was soundly defeated on the battlefield and their spoils had been apportioned among the people, nothing stood between Israel and its destination (31:1 54).
But then quite suddenly another threat loomed on the horizon, this time precipitated neither by antagonistic enemies from without nor by unbridled wantonness from within, but rather by a seemingly more innocuous desire for comfort and by a smugness that is frequently a direct consequence of plentitude. The tribes of Gad and Reuven, blessed with massive flocks, cast their covetous eyes upon the fertile expanse of the conquered Amorite territory and desired to remain there, even as the rest of the tribes were poised to cross over the River Jordan and fight for their survival in the new land. Needless to say, Moshe was not enthusiastic about their request, for he saw in it the seeds of the people's weakened resolve and self-destruction in the face of the challenges directly ahead: "why then do you sway the hearts of the people of Israel from crossing into the land that God gave to them?!" (32:7).
After much negotiation and readjustment of priorities, the request of the two tribes was granted, but hinging upon one condition: that they provide a significant strike force to traverse the Yarden with the rest of Israel and to assist their brethren in conquering the new land, for as long as that process might take. Reuven and Gad would therefore not be allowed to divorce themselves from the destiny of the rest of the tribes by remaining in fertile Transjordan, but would rather have to fight by their side and, if necessary, die by their side as well. Forcefully, Moshe publicly bound them to their commitment with an uncommon "double conditional", a legal usage that spells out not only the responsibilities that devolve upon the obligated party but also the consequences of non-fulfillment:
Moshe said to them (El'azar the Kohen, Yehoshua bin Nun and the tribal elders of Israel): IF a strike force of the people of Gad and the people of Reuven traverse the Yarden with you, to wage war before God so that the land is conquered by you, THEN you shall give them all of the land of Gil'ad as a possession. But IF a strike force does NOT traverse with you, THEN they shall inherit with you in the land of Canaan " (22:29-30).
MOSHE'S FORCEFUL WORDS AND A TELLING EXPRESSION
Earlier, though, Moshe had concluded his remarks to these tribes, who themselves had suggested the solution of providing a strike force, with a potent and telling charge: " and fulfill it in accordance with that which you speak with your mouths!" (32:24). This expression, stressing the need for a person to stand by his word and to fulfill his obligations whether to God or to man, immediately recalls the opening section of our Parasha: "If a person vows to God or takes an oath to constrain himself, he shall not profane his pledge, but shall fulfill it IN ACCORDANCE WITH ALL THAT HE SPOKE WITH HIS MOUTH" (Bemidbar 30:3). Thus, Moshe's charge to the tribes of Gad and Reuven provides us with the perfect counterpoint to the Parasha's opening section. Matot had began with a disjointed reference to the necessity of fulfilling vows and keeping one's word, of not falling short when one pledges to God, and all of it had been unusually communicated "to the chiefs of the tribes" (30:2). With the Parasha's conclusion, also spoken by Moshe in the presence of the tribal chiefs, the need for such an opening salvo suddenly became perfectly clear.
That is to say that as Israel neared its destination and the awesomeness of the challenge before them began to come into focus, there was a special need for renewed resolve, steadfastness and determination on their part. There could no backing down now, and no questioning of the Divine will. A vow of course, any vow, is about fostering self-fortitude and overcoming fear or apathy in the face of a serious challenge. A task needs to be done and sometimes one lacks either the concrete resources or else the strength of will to accomplish it. It is then that the vow becomes a potent incentive, a means of mustering the internal resources to confidently proceed. A vow to God can spur a person onwards by shoring up a shaky spirit and filling it with renewed inspiration, by emphasizing the hope and trust that God will assist him when no effort is spared on his part. A vow to God can help a person see beyond the immediate hurdles, that often seem insurmountable, and believe that eventual success is possible. Such was the vow of Ya'akov when he fled into the ominous night, alone and penniless, from before the murderous wrath of Esav his brother (see Bereishit 28:2-22); such was also the rash vow of Yiftach when he embarked into battle against the much more numerous and powerful Midianites (see Shoftim 11:30-31).
THE VOWS OF PARASHAT MATOT IN CONTEXT
At this juncture in the narratives of Sefer Bemidbar, as the wilderness wanderings were about to become a memory and the people of Israel stood poised to enter the Promised Land, there was a special need for just such legislation, to highlight to the people that their own steadfast trust in God and confidence in themselves would serve as the source of their success. A vow to God must be fulfilled even if it is onerous, and release from vows is no simple matter. But a vow is not undertaken cavalierly and without good cause. Especially when one feels overwhelmed by life's trials, especially when a difficult mission appears on the horizon, then it is that a vow to God can provide a person with the confidence to go forward.
Technically, of course, not every vow need be precipitated by a moment of abject danger or else triggered by a life-altering event. Certainly, the opening legislation of the Parasha deals with less grave moments, with more routine vows that may be undertaken by a man or by a woman in the service of God or else for self-growth. But the very fact that Moshe communicates the legislation to the tribal elders is significant, for it is they who will later be charged with encouraging the people in their overwhelming task of conquering and settling the land. Let these leaders therefore understand the nature of vows and the critical formula that equates success with self-confidence, with steadfast trust and the courage to go on, even in the face of insurmountable odds. And as for the tribes of Reuven and Gad, whose own solemn vow concludes the Parasha, it is their connection to the people of Israel and to the land of Canaan that must be now reinforced. Though they might be geographically separated by the River Jordan that had always served as the natural boundary between the western and eastern banks, their vow to stay by the people's side until the task of conquest and settlement was completed would forever bind them to the destiny of their brethren.
The topic of vows, then, with which our Parasha begins and ends, is the glue that binds the elements together and provides Israel with perhaps the most critical lesson of all: though God had promised the land to them and to their descendents in perpetuity, though He had pledged His ongoing assistance and constant concern and care, though the wilderness experience had shaped and matured the people and prepared them for the task ahead, conquering and settling the land would still be an overwhelming task. It would be a lengthy and drawn-out process with no shortage of setbacks and obstructions. But if Israel could only marshal the internal resources that they now possessed (and only if they could marshal those resources!) then ultimately success would be theirs. So may it be for us.
For further study: see the commentary of the Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) on 30:2 where he draws our attention to the textual and thematic links between the opening of the Parasha and its conclusion, and indicates that both sections were communicated at the assembly called to bind Reuven and Gad to their pledge. For Ibn Ezra, of course, the sections of the Torah need not follow a strict chronological order, as we have seen in other lessons.