Themes and meaning of the parasha
This parasha deals first with the sacredness of religious
vows, when they are binding and when they can be annulled.
It then goes on to describe the war of vengeance against
the Midianites, who tried to destroy Israel by assimilation
(ch. 31), enticing them to idol worship through the charms
of their women and mixed marriages. Those who are still
enticed in this direction should fear the wrath of God.
Then the tribes of Reuven and Gad, and their multitude
of cattle, ask Moshe for permission to settle east of
the Jordan (ch. 32).
The entire parasha focuses on the theme of a vow that
is given or said. Moshe teaches us
how to ensure that vows are fully kept,
the punishment for those among the bnei Yisrael who do
not carry out their promise to destroy the Midianites,
and the conditions for those who wish to settle east of
This parasha describes only two mitzvot, nos. 406 and
407. They are found in this verse from the beginning of
"When a man voweth a vow unto Hashem
not break his word, ish ki yidor neder.. lo yahel devaro"
"When a man voweth a vow unto Hashem
do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth"
Our Sages comment on this repetition and on the difference
between these two similar phrases. We shall study their
Rashi states first (basing himself on Mishna Kinim 1,
1 an on the Sifre) that this verse relates to vows which
add prohibitions to what is permitted, rather than vows
authorizing what is prohibited: lesor et hamutar velo
lehatir et haasur.
..as though we did not have enough mitzvot (613!).
In this verse, the Torah predicted the danger of religious
Talmud Sotah 21b depicts such extremism in its portrayal
of the hassid shote who does not understand the connection
between theory and real life, and does not know how to
distinguish priorities or exceptions. This is often the
case with those who are just beginning to study the Torah
and do not understand the shimush, its application. This
means that they have not studied how the Sages applied
the Torah to the totality of their lives. This is why
students are not allowed to study alone, for this can
cause them to lose all sense of perspective: " or
study together, or else death," o hevruta o mituta
Rashi then comments on the
phrase: "he shall not break his word" (lo yahel
devaro) and tells us that the word "yahel" should
be understood in relation to lo yehalel devar, which means
to profane (hol). This refers to everything that is not
sacred, kedusha (see I Samuel 23, 6). Hulin refers to
all that is profane. It also describes the fruits which
remain once the teruma has been taken, to be given to
the priest, to the symbol of sacredness. At the other
extreme to the Holy of Holies (kodesh kodashim), one refers
to what is very far removed from sacredness as hule hulin.
A banal, everyday conversation can be described as sihat
We shall first study what Rashi means here and then see
how the Shla develops this theme.
He who does not keep his word
transforms a word which is sacred (kadosh) into something
far removed from sacredness, into hol, profanity. We can
now understand better the demand, constantly repeated
in the Torah, in the Tanakh and in the history of the
Jewish people, "to be like others" and not to
be a "holy" people. This is exactly like the
hiloniut (secularism) of today, which uses the same root.
This has been a recurring theme in the history of the
Jewish people and in Israel today, political parties have
adopted secularism as their platform.
Rashi returns often to this
theme of holiness versus profanity, as in his commentary
on Shabbat, in Shemot 31, 14 (those who profane Shabbat,
he writes, those who act in a profane manner, while Shabbat
is holy). Rashi does not write that these people do not
keep Shabbat or do not practice its laws (expressions
often used today by those who do not "respect"
Shabbat); he writes that the hiloni is someone who transforms
the holy into the profane (hanoge ba hol bikedushata).
Rashi thus connect the word
"profane" to the "profanation" of
holiness. The Torah teaches us here that profanation has
nothing to do with some neutral secularism which aims
to respect the rights of every individual. Rashi expresses
this clearly and passionately in his commentary on Vayikra
21, 9, which prohibits prostitution and uses the verb
hol, to profane ("ki tehel kizenot et avia, if she
profane herself by playing the harlot, she profaneth her
The Shla's commentary: the
sacredness of speech
The Shla explains that the whole parasha is devoted to
the completeness of the soul (shlemut haneshama) for speech
is the outer expression of the neshama and represents
its inner discourse.
This is why speech separates man from all other creatures.
Where the Torah says that Adam was created as a "living
creature" (nefesh haya), Onkelos translates this
as "talking creature" (ruah memalela). Speech
is thus directly connected to the Creator, and is therefore
sacred, and removed from the world of the profane and
Because of its intrinsic sacredness,
it is essential to respect speech, to keep one's word,
not to dishonor it, or prostitute it, and not to make
it into something profane. This is not just a social or
ethical code, it is a code which stems from the very sacredness
Note: Those who do not keep their word, do not realize
that this entails a process of profanation and prostitution.
This is why the Torah teaches us this code and warns us,
through the precepts of the Sages, against those who mock
and disrespect speech. The Baal Haturim begins his monumental
work on Hakakha (the Tur) with this theme.
This is why King David wrote:
"My mouth shall speak the praise of Hashem"
(tehilat Hashem yedaber pi" Psalm 145, 21).
Note: David knows the nature of what comes out of his
mouth, and he directs it to its original source through
praise. He transcends banality into praise, through speech.
The words of the Torah (30, 3) can now be understood to
mean: nothing which comes out of one's mouth should be
profaned by being reduced to the level of hol, that which
is profane. Everything must remain at the level of sacredness.
This is how my master, Rabbi Moshe Zenu, lived: his daily
speech was full of blessings. This is the education parents
should give their children, as is written in the chapter
containing the Shema Yisrael (Devarim 6): "ve dibarta
bam, and thou shalt teach them [the words] diligently
unto thy children
The Shla proceeds to define
the nature of neder, vow: in Judaism, every word has the
power of attaining divine kedusha, sacredness, but if
someone is in doubt of this and wishes to ensure sacredness
in all that he does, he imposes on himself additional
prohibitions to those in the Torah. According to the root
of the word neder, the letter nun, whose numerical value
is 50, represents supreme wisdom. It goes without saying
that he who aspires to such a level, to the extent of
imposing on himself additional obligations, must have
already upholded all the commandments of the Torah.
This teaching on the nature
of speech and the need for caution in the face of extremism,
as represented in the neder, warns against the phenomenon
of pseudo Sages, pseudo hassidim and fervent fundamentalists.
It also teaches us all to maintain the quality of holiness
in our speech, which does not mean it should be sad for
there is much joy and humor in the Torah, the midrashim,
the Talmud, Rachi etc. This precept to maintain holiness
in speech is important because:
Tractate Yoma of the Talmud teaches us that the temple
was destroyed because the people had lost this element
of holiness in their speech and conduct. It gives five
examples drawn from the absence of the letter he (5) in
Haggai 1, 8: "Go up to the mountain and brig wood
and build the house and I will take pleasure in it, and
I will be glorified, said Hashem." (glorified: veekaveda
is written instead of veekavedah.)
The conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezar was a result
of the violation of this respect for speech, as was the
destruction of the Sanhedrin at the time of King Tzidkiahu.
This is why midrash Eikha Rabbati (2, 18) says: do not
take lightly this passage of the Torah on the sacredness
of vows and speech.
A memorable example of the
importance of speech
Tractate Sanhedrin is similar to a civil code of law,
for it details every possible law to govern cases of damages
against others. But behind the judicial structure, it
is the words of the witnesses which bear weight. The Tractate
ends with the example of the prophet Eli, which I quote
below. Tractate Sanhedrin, page 113a-b:
"Rabbi Yosse of the town
of Sephoris recounted this:
father Eli (the great prophet himself!) was irascible.
(how can one write such things?! This refers to what he
says in I Kings 17, 1).
Now the prophet Eli was accustomed to visiting Rabbi Yosse
(he visits the great Sages in different generations) but
for three days he did not visit him.
When the prophet Eli resumed his visits, Rabbi Yosse said:
Why did you not come before?
You accused me of being irascible.
This just shows that you are irascible!"
It would be a mistake to think that the Talmud describes
humorous, folk or popular stories which do not have the
elevated, sacred level of the commentaries on the Torah.
The point of this story is that daily life is also kedusha,
and humor should be understood not just as a joke but
as transmitting the truth.
True Jewish humor expresses itself when external pressure
is fiercest, but it is always pertinent, affectionate
The importance of speech in
In contrast, many believe that it is permissible to lie
in business or in politics. Those who believe this forget
that lying for material gain is a desecration of the divine
word itself, that which guards the people, Israel.
Politics is one of the domains which makes most use of
spin-merchants and where the power of speech is most deceptive.
The state coffers may be empty, but somehow, during campaign
elections, the politicians and those who earn the most
are suddenly promising a hoard of handouts. And when they
take power, they inevitably declare that they have just
discovered that the preceding government left the coffers
empty. And they always find funds for the needs of their
followers, who, they suddenly declare, are the nation's
most needy group.
In such a world, which separates sacredness from real
life, the good Jew is always tamim, na?ve, as in the story
recounted in Tractate Sanhedrin 67b:
"Zeire travelled to Alexandria
in Egypt in order to buy an ass (who will be the greater
ass in the story?). He bought it and when he tried to
give it water to drink, the ass disappeared and in its
place was a plain piece of wood! (just like voters who
fall for promises like the ass Zeire bought in the market).
Zeire went to complain to the vendors, who like all good
traders, responded: Just because you are Zeire, otherwise
we wouldn't return you your money. Is there anyone in
the world who buys an ass without testing it by submitting
it to the test of drinking water?" (This means that
we all know that we constantly deceive in business and
that even our eyes can be deluded by lies.)
This story must have served
as a lesson for a man called Yanai, as the rest of the
"Yanai arrives at an inn and is on the alert. He
asks for water to drink and notes that the servant girl
moves her lips as she serves him (one of the last presidents
of the USA used, in his electorate campaign, the slogan
- look at my lips, and you will pay no more taxes - and
he won. Yanai also forgets everything he learnt about
the sacredness of speech and takes up the game of deception).
He tells himself that the servant girl must have deceived
him and pours the water on the ground, and indeed, scorpions
emerge from the glass.
Cunningly, he tells her: I drank the water you gave me,
now it is your turn to drink the water I will give you.
She drinks the water Yanai gives her and transforms into
Proud of his success, he mounts the ass and makes his
way back, crossing the marketplace. But the servant girl's
friend saw the scene, runs after him and breaks the spell.
Then, to the great amusement of everyone, Yanai was seen
crossing the marketplace astride a woman."
The lesson of the neder teaches us that it is not enough
for man to keep the commandments of the Torah, he needs
to add to them. Any attempt at falsifying speech will
only lead to self delusion and moral turpitude. Empty
electoral promises, the public's need to play this game
of deception, phony scientific polls, the list is long
and one wonders where it will end.
Vote for me; my program is
unique; I juggle better than the others; I am different
to everyone else; I am the best; only I can bring peace
now; I will give you all that you want.
This is the language of opinion polls: for whom do you
intend to vote? Who is the better speaker? Who is the
most convincing candidate? Who is the best dressed candidate?
Who is best able to make peace, provide jobs, improve
Why do I deal with these issues in a commentary on the
Torah? Because they show how speech is exploited, particularly
when the stakes are highest.
He who aspires to make a vow, or to add another commandment
to the Torah, must first keep all the mitzvot.
This approach (discussed in
the third part of the Shla's commentary, following the
commentary on the mitzvot and that on the Torah) is called:
Derekh Hayim (way of life).
The Shla draws the following
1. Man should be credible and reliable in his speech (neeman
2. He must pay heed to everything that comes out of his
mouth: thus after making their request to Moshe, the tribes
of Reuven and Gad were obliged to keep their word (read
the text in ch. 32).
3. This obligation applies not only to the vows we make
and to important issues, it also applies to every word
We should all examine closely
the way we speak and whether we keep our word, especially
to those we love, but also in our professional and social
Our speech reflects the divine element in us, which is
our neshama (soul), and it shows whether the neshama is
respected and praised or profaned and abused.
It is Hashem himself who is affected for Israel is a holy
The state of benediction is either extended or reduced
by speech, and the consequences affect everyone.
The Lubavicher Rabbi would
always offer those who came to see him one or two 1$ bills,
even though the visitors came to see him because of his
great spirituality. By this gesture, perhaps he was saying:
may your words and actions conform to the words of the
Torah which you express here or which you wish to hear
from me; may they conform in the tiniest detail, down
to the smallest $ bill.
The aim of bringing up the
issue of politics (which affects all of us) and the word
games we collude in, between politicians and voters, is
to make us aware of what is at stake. From the time of
the burning bush, Moshe struggled to ensure the triumph
of sacredness in words and deeds, as of the holy forces
which carry the world. He tried to tell this to Pharaoh
but was not heeded, so he left Egypt and made his way
to Jerusalem without Pharaoh.
During the period in the desert,
recounted in the book Bamidbar, Moshe showed the children
of Israel the terrible consequences that can ensue from
imprudent speech (Miriam in Behaalotekh, the political
and religious leaders who are not faithful to the land
of Israel in Shelach Lecha, the rivalries for power in
Korah, the terrible curses made against Israel by other
nations and religions in Balak. In Hukkat, Moshe teaches
us how to ensure sacredness in speech and in Pinehas,
he urges us to react against those who wish to destroy
the Jewish people because they are the people of the Torah).
According to the Shla, parasha
Mattot adds the finishing touch to these laws which aim
to ensure tikkun (reparation) of the neshama of the people.
The following chapter (Massei) will describe the tikkun
of the body. Since these two parashiot have a similar
aim, they are often linked together, making the union
of the neshama and the body complete.
Thus the Torah and its teachings are given to the whole
The book of Devarim will them summarize these teachings.
Accomplishing this tikkun depends solely on ourselves: we must study these parashiot not only with our heads
but also with our bodies, hearts, thoughts and actions.
We will then have accomplished the task we have been given.
It is a mistake to think that
"such vigilance on the sacredness of speech and its
consequences is excessive and that there is no harm in
enjoying political verbal sparring, hurting someone with
a caustic or sadistic remark, selling ideas for money,
vying to control the public purse, choosing to follow
only what we please in the Torah and ignoring the rest."
The Torah and our Sages do not think in this way, as we
see in the Tur's commentary on Bamidbar 30, 2:
Nedarim, be gematria rotzeah. She hanoder hashuv ke rotseah
im eino meshalem de beavon nedarim, habbanim metim.
"The word nedarim has the same gematria as rotzeah
(assassin). Thus he who makes a vow is considered an assassin
if he does not keep it completely, and because of the
abuse of the vows, the sons die." The Tur bases himself
on Tractate Shabbat 32b, which states that not keeping
one's word is as serious, and has the same consequences,
as the abandonment of the study of the Torah.
Respect for the sacredness of speech is a question of
life or death.
It is no easy thing to do, for any of us, at any time.
So let us help one another.
1. Memorize verse 30, 3 at the top of the parasha, which
summarizes this commentary.
2. Study the subject of respect for speech in:
Rambam, Sefer hamitzvot, 95 and 157.
Rambam, Mishne Torah, haflaat nedarim 4, 5.
Rabbi Yosef Caro, Shulhan Arokh, Yore Dea 204 ; 215, 5;
228, 1-3; 234, 1, 2, 5.
3. Discuss in groups the issue of respect for speech and
the problems related to it, basing yourselves on this
parasha and its commentaries.