The typical translation for the Hebrew name of the Book of Numbers, Bamidbar, is not “Numbers,” but “In the Wilderness.” While this translation is most definitely accurate, I have discovered that there is actually a different meaning to this name. The root of the word “speak”, d’var, is actually hidden in the name of this book. This fits the fourth book of the Torah perfectly, as many of its stories deal with the difficulties of speech. We have the spies, who through speech led the people to fear; Miriam and Aaron who were punished for speaking ill of Moses’ wife; and even Moses, who can no longer enter the land of Israel because of his inability to speak to a rock. This theme of the hazards of not speaking with care continues this week in Parshat Matot, with a warning against a different form of speech that can often lead us astray.
Matot opens with a discussion of vows, discussing how a person who makes a vow must keep their word, and they must do so to the letter. The severity of a vow is great, the only way for a man to get out of one, according to the medieval commentator Rashi, is to declare it annulled in front of three witnesses. Women, in what you’ll probably find insulting, are able to have their vows annulled either by their fathers or husbands.
The fact that we are commanded to keep our vows should not surprise any of us. The Torah provides guidelines for living a proper life. Honesty is an important Jewish value, and keeping our word falls into that category. Break a promise, and you can hurt someone, including yourself, as you create a reputation for being someone who cannot be relied upon.
What is surprising is that a vow can be annulled. In one line, the Torah teaches us that a vow must be kept word for word, then in the next how we can get out of it. Why is the Torah giving us a loophole for escaping our promises, in effect lessening the importance of keeping our word?
I would argue that this is actually teaching us just how strong our words can be. Because a vow is something that is given so much power, to not give us a way out of it can leave us trapped by our promises. If we were not held to a high expectation when keeping our word, there would be no reason for us to need an annulment. Change your mind about something you promised? Fine, just don’t do it. Yet, Judaism makes us go through an external process in order to revoke our promises.
The process of annulment is external, involving a public declaration, for a reason. We are shown that while we may be able to get out of our promises, we have to be able to face the social consequences. While God might understand if you go back on your word, people are not always so forgiving. You may do the right thing and publicly announce, “I can’t do this,” but a little seed of mistrust is still planted in people’s minds. Keep watering that seed through other forms of negative speech and going back on your vows, and sooner or later no one is going to trust you.
So what can we do? Do we find ourselves hopelessly trapped by our words? The answer is simple, and one that the Torah has been giving us throughout Bamidbar, including in this parsha. We need to be more conscious of what comes out of our mouths. The juxtaposition between the need to keep our vows, and the rules for getting out of a vow is, in addition to what I said earlier, teaching us that we need to be cautious about the promises we make. Some promises should not be made, and if they are made, we need to get out of them.
When we make promises, we are placing ourselves in a dangerous position. Besides placing ourselves in a situation where we may have to break the promise, we might also find ourselves forced to do something that we should not do. Think of the movie Supersize Me, where Morgan Spurlock makes a vow that he will eat only McDonald’s for 30 days, resulting in catastrophic damage to his health. Of course, stubbornness may also be to blame for that, yet we can see it in our own daily lives. We make promises, but situations change, and we find that keeping the promise may be extremely undesirable.
When I was younger, my parents actually, unbeknownst to them, taught me this value. I would never make a promise because they told me that swearing is not what Jews do. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure they were trying to tell me not to curse. While this misinterpretation might explain why so many foul-mouthed people have a reputation for being brutally honest, it seems my mistake was actually correct and Jews really aren’t supposed to make promises, right?
Wrong. Parshat Matot, at the very end, throws a wrench in everything by having the tribes of Reuven and Ephraim make a promise that, in exchange for being able to settle east of the Jordan river, they would still cross over and help the rest of the Jewish people conquer the Land of Israel. A promise is made, and, in the Book of Joshua, the promise is kept. If these two tribes didn’t make this promise, Moses would not have been able to trust them, and would not have allowed them to settle in the east.
Parshat Matot is showing us the double-edge blade of promises. If we make them and break them, we will lose the trust of others, yet if we refuse to make them, we will also be viewed skeptically by others. Instead, as the Torah is often trying to teach us, we must find what another medieval rabbi, Maimonides, calls the middle path. We need to demonstrate to others that we can be relied upon at times by making promises, yet we also must be careful about how much we promise.
David Gutbezahl is a student at Gratz College.