Parashat Mattot-Mass’ei 5781

7 July 2021 – 27 Tammuz 5781

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein

“The Torah does not prescribe vows; it only regulates them.” Philip Birnbaum

Our Sages generally frown upon vows – a subject of this week’s sidrah. Ben Sira advices: “Let nothing prevent you from paying your vows in time [so] prepare yourself before you make a vow.” Philo suggests, “The word of the good should be their oath, firm and unchangeable… Therefore vows and oaths should be superfluous. Once made, a vow should be sacred, particularly if made with deliberate purpose and sober reason.”

Vows that promise abstinence are of particular concern. Philo wrote: “If you see someone not taking food or drink…refusing baths and oils, neglecting one’s looks and sleeping on the ground…pity their self-deception and teach them moderation.” Rabbi Yitzhak in the Talmud said, “Aren’t the things prohibited in the Torah enough for you, that you wish to deny yourself other things.”

However, commandment does not always work and I would argue does so with diminishing frequency in our days. Hence the importance of behavioural and society psychologists to support government strategy this past year. There are times when being pushed to do something – even not to do something – by a dominant force proves counter-productive: The parent is stumped by the obstinate child.

On those occasions, one might reach or yearn for a soothing, nurturing Presence towards which one might draw.

I am also reticent towards vows as they create conditional relationships, if…then. Yet I do like the idea of being gently drawn, guided and encouraged to take small steps that provide a sense of accomplishment, of achievement that is of a sacred nature. This is clearly recommended through Rabbi Elli Tikvah-Sarah’s Compelling Commitments.

The Sefat Emet suggests: “The Midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 22:1) quotes the verse: “You shall swear by the living God in truth, judgment and righteousness (Jeremiah 4:2).” I have already noted that these three are parallel to “with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5).” “Truth” refers to the soul, which is life within. “Judgment” applies to the heart, for it has two directions and needs proper balance. “Righteousness” refers to might [interpreted to mean material wealth]. Only then can it say: “These words which I command you this day shall be on your heart (Deuteronomy 6:6).” Only after body and soul have been set right can we receive words of Torah.”

It is when we pray to God for this manner of courage, strength and discernment that I believe we become full and sated. Small step by step, we create a covenantal relationship that is full of our human endeavour and full of God’s blessing.

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