Parashat Mattot & Ma’sey 5780


A D’var Torah for Parashat Mattot
By Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

Our Torah portion this week teaches us not to promise what we cannot deliver: “If a person makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation upon themself, they shall not break the pledge; they must carry out all that crossed their lips” (Num. 30:3). Despite the warning, many people make commitments that they do not end up fulfilling or give assurances for things they never intend to uphold. No wonder there is a strong tradition against taking oaths. We find this attitude in the rabbinic legal tradition when the major 16th century code of law, the Shulhan Arukh, states “Do not be accustomed to making vows and whoever vows – even if they fulfill it – is called a wicked person and is called a sinner” (Yoreh Deah 203:1). And fulfilling an oath might be even worse than failing to follow through. The Shulhan Arukh goes on to quote a teaching from Rabbi Natan that one who makes an oath is like one who builds an altar outside of the Temple – an act the rabbis vociferously prohibit – and one who fulfills the oath is like one who actually offers a sacrifice on the illicit altar (Nedarim 22a; Yoreh Deah 203:3). It’s therefore preferable to have your oath annulled than to fulfill it.

Why such a strong reaction to those who make binding promises and especially to those who fulfill them? One possibility is that this negative attitude was a pushback against the prevalence of promising in the surrounding culture. Saul Lieberman suggested that in antiquity “the populace swore always and everywhere” and therefore the rabbis “had to emphasize the sacredness of the oath” and “the necessity of avoiding” it (Greek in Jewish Palestine, 115). Against a Greek population that “resorted to oaths in their ordinary talk in the streets and the markets, even for the purposes of cheating and out of mere verbosity” (Ibid., 116) the rabbis had to take a stand against such widespread vows. As promulgators of Torah she-be-al-peh, oral Torah, the rabbis knew the power of the spoken word and strove to protect it. Taking an oath lessens the value of simply saying you will do something, suggesting that unless someone makes a special promise they should not be expected to follow through. This idea may perhaps be hinted at in the biblical text, which warns that one “shall not break the pledge” (lo yahel devaro). Rashi interprets the word yahel (“break”) as meaning that one should not desecrate (yehalel) their words – they should not make their words devoid of sacredness (hullin).

However, in contrast to these warnings against taking an oath, there is one place where we find a striking exception. In a very succinct ruling the Shulhan Arukh asserts that in a time of distress (tzarah) it is permitted to make a vow (Yoreh Deah 203:5). This exception apparently draws upon a midrash on Jacob’s oath to God in the Book of Genesis. After fleeing from his home, Jacob has his famous ladder dream and after he awakens he makes a vow: “If God remains with me and God protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safely to my father’s house – the Lord shall be my God” (Gen. 28:20-21). One might think that taking an oath in this type of situation – out of a place of fear and anxiety – would not be the most reliable commitment. People are more likely to make promises when they are in need but once they are safe, they do not always follow through. Yet, the midrash moves in a surprising direction. Reading this source from Genesis together with Psalm 66:14, “[vows] that my lips pronounced, that my mouth uttered in distress,” Rabbi Yitzhak haBavli states that a vow is a commandment (mitzvah) in a time of distress (Gen. Rab. 70)

Why would it be a commandment to vow at a time of distress? The idea feels a bit counterintuitive. Sensing this oddity, Moshe Teitelbaum brings an interesting interpretation in his work Yismah Moshe – perhaps this midrash actually means one who took a vow to fulfill a commandment (Yismah Moshe, Yayetzei 10). But why take an oath to commit to something for which one is already obligated? Teitelbaum answers this question by referring to the well-known idea that one who performs an action for which they are obligated is greater than one who does the act without being obligated (see Kiddushin 31a). According to his interpretation, even though one may already have a divinely-imposed obligation, it is preferable to add a personal level of commitment by taking an oath. Rather than merely passively accepting an obligation the one who takes a vow to fulfill a commandment actively takes the responsibility upon themself. Bringing the dimension of distress back into the equation, we might suggest that times of uncertainty and concern are the optimal moment for reaffirming commitments.

In our current moment of pandemic and distress what are the pledges that we have made to others and how can we bolster these commitments? In these times when some feel that the value of words and promises has been undermined in society around us how can we restore faith in what others have to say? May the coming weeks bring a renewed commitment to fulfilling the words that we utter and the promises that we make, and may we move towards an age in which the default assumption is that we can rely on others without the need for oaths and vows.
Rabbi Matthew Goldstone, PhD, is the Assistant Academic Dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion where he teaches courses in Talmud and Jewish Law. Rabbi Goldstone is the author of The Dangerous Duty of Rebuke: Leviticus 19:17 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation.