The parsha begins dealing with vows and oaths and their annulment. Its position here, though – near the end of the book of Bamidbar – is strange.
The Torah has been describing the last stages in the journey to the Promised Land. The command has been given to divide the land between the tribes. Moshe has been told by Hashem to prepare for his death, and Yehoshua is appointed as his succesor. And now we learn about vows and oaths.
Why is it here?
One problem, perhaps the problem, to which the Torah is an answer is: Can freedom and order coexist? Can there be a society which is both free and just at the same time? The Torah sets out for us the other alternatives. There can be freedom and chaos. That was the world full of violence before the Mabul. And there can be order without freedom. That was the Egypt from which the Jews were liberated. Is there a third alternative? And if so, how is it created?
The answer the Torah gives has to do with language. It was with language that Hashem created the world. One of the first gifts Hashem gave humanity was language. In Judaism, speaking is life itself.
However, the Torah is particularly interested in one unusual use of language: “performative utterance.”
This happens when we use language not to describe something but to do something. For instance, when a chosson says to his kallah under the chupah, “Harei At mekudeshes li”, he is not describing a marriage, he is getting married. When Beis Din would declare Rosh Chodesh, they were not making a statement of fact. They were creating a fact.
The key example of this is a promise. When I promise that I will do something, I am creating something that did not exist before- an obligation. You can rely on me, since I have given my word. It is this ability of humans to commit to, or refrain from doing, certain acts that allow true relationships to develop.
If trust breaks down, relationships break down. Society will then depend on law enforcement agencies. When force is widely used, society is no longer free. The only way free human beings can form collaborative relationships is by the use of verbal undertakings honored by those who make them.
// Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Prior to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, Yirmiyahu HaNavi diagnosed the conditions that were leading to the ensuing galus:
“They bend their tongues like bows;
They are strong for treachery, not for honesty;
They advance from evil to evil.
They do not know Me – declares Hashem.
Beware of your friends;
Trust not even a brother,
For every one of them is a deceiver, and every friend a slanderer.
Friend deceives friend, and no one speaks the truth.
They have taught their tongues to lie; they weary themselves with sinning.
You live in the midst of deceit;
in their deceit they refuse to know Me – declares Hashem”
That was the condition of a society that has not fully recovered.
// Yirmiyahu, 9; 2-5
Understanding this, the appearance of vows and oaths now, as the Jews are approaching Israel, is no accident, and is still relevant today. A free society depends on trust. Trust depends on keeping your word. That is how humans imitate Hashem – by using language to create. Words create moral obligations, and moral obligations, undertaken responsibly and honored faithfully, create the possibility of a free society. So never break a promise. Always do what you say you are going to do. If we fail to keep our word, eventually we will lose our freedom.
// Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־הָעָ֣ם לֵאמֹ֔ר הֵחָלְצ֧וּ מֵאִתְּכֶ֛ם אֲנָשִׁ֖ים לַצָּבָ֑א
Moshe spoke to the people: Release all personal biases and earthly dependencies from yourselves, and you’ll be worthy soldiers of Hashem
// Bamidbar 31:3, Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Peshischa
The Torah enumerates the 42 encampments at which we stopped during the four decades of traveling on our path to the Holy Land. The stops were not merely layovers, but served as an end unto itself; it provided an opportunity to pause, reflect and consider Hashem’s guidance which directed us on our circuitous journeys. The Lubavitcher Rebbe referred to these starting and stopping points as national stepping stones in the larger journey of the Jewish People toward self-actualization.
Rashi shares a deep Medrash: “A prince once became sick, and his father took him to a distant location to have him healed. On the way back, the king began mentioning all the stages of their journey, saying to him, “This is where we sat, here is you were cold, there you had a headache…” Reaching the end of Sefer Bamidbar, we look back at each place we had camped and reminisce on what we experienced.
With reflection, we can glimpse how each hardship in the midbar was an essential part of our process.
We have hopes, plans, and intentions. Then “life happens” and we don’t really know where we are going to end up. We are often forced to pivot and reroute.
It is specifically through the ‘interruptions’ and twists in our path that our true destiny is revealed. May we sense Hashem’s constant care and love in all of our unplanned stops and falls!
// Rav Judah Mischel
By Moshe Schonbrun
A deeply valued content contributor for Meaningful Minute, Moshe is a husband, father, and espresso enthusiast. He is Executive Director at Avenues Recovery of Maryland, a residential addiction treatment center, and co-founder of The 13th Gate, an innovative platform for contemporary spiritual engagement in Silver Spring, MD. A talmid of Rabbi Meir Stern and Rabbi Asher Arielli, Moshe previously served as Rabbi at the University of Arizona in Tucson and the University of Maryland in College Park. He is the artist behind @farbreng_ink and the Chavrusa Podcast.