July 3, 2013

Matot: Keeping Vows

One who makes a vow should take care to fulfill it:

“If a man makes a vow to God, or makes an oath to prohibit [something] to himself, he must not break his word. He should do all that he expressed verbally.” (Num. 30:3)

Oaths and vows are a natural human response in times of intense emotions. Particularly when we sense danger or trouble, we spontaneously begin to bargain with God. We pledge to improve ourselves or repay some undeserved kindness. Why do people act this way?

The Intellect and the Emotions

Two major facets of the soul are the intellect and the emotions. Fortunate is the individual who has succeeded in refining both intellectual and emotional aspects, so that they work together and complement each other.

Torah study and mitzvot help us grow in both of these areas. Some mitzvot are primarily geared towards developing the intellect. They guide us towards an accurate outlook on the world, and help us focus our powers of analysis and introspection. Other mitzvot are more related to our emotional lives. They guard and direct the emotions, refining them so that they will harmonize with the rational intellect.

Where do vows and oaths fit in? They are associated with the realm of emotions. Vows are usually the result of an outburst of feelings – an overpowering sense of holiness, awe, fear, or gratitude — that fill one’s heart and inspire one to make a vow. The Torah admonishes us to be careful to fulfill our pledges. We need to recognize the value of these holy feelings. One who belittles and disregards his vows is in fact rejecting the great benefit of this natural asset, for vows can direct us to live an emotionally refined life that complements our intellectual attainments.

Keeping One’s Wife

Rabbi Natan, the second-century scholar, made a statement that is difficult to understand: “A man loses his wife as punishment for breaking vows” (Shabbat 32b). What is the connection between keeping one’s vows and keeping one’s wife?

The principle differences in the psychological makeup of men and women are rooted in the spheres of intellect and emotion. Women excel in emotional intelligence. They feel more acutely the good and the evil in moral choices, the true and the false in practical studies, the beautiful and the ugly in lifestyles.

Men, on the other hand, are more focused on their intellectual faculties. For them, emotions take on a supporting role.

A woman of valor is called “her husband’s crown” (Proverbs 12:4). Her talents complement that which is lacking in her husband, namely the emotional component. His powers of introspection are bolstered and sustained by her heightened sense of good and evil, truth and falsehood.

One who disparages the importance of vows, and their usefulness in refining the emotions, has also lost sight of the sublime value provided by a virtuous woman when her talents are properly appreciated. One who disregards his oaths undermines the significance of emotions in life and spiritual growth. Such a person, Rabbi Natan taught, has ‘lost’ his wife and her unique contribution. His path in life, both spiritual and material, is limited, for only a woman of valor “does him good and not evil all the days of her life” (Proverbs 31:12).

(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III p. 176)


Massei: Unchecked Violence
With regard to a society where murderers can evade punishment through bribery, the Torah admonishes

“Do not defile the land in which you live and in which I live.” (Num. 35:34)
In what way does allowing murderers go unpunished ‘defile the land’? And why does the Torah emphasize that this is the land where both you and God dwell?

The Sages taught in Shabbat 33a:

“For the crime of bloodshed, the Temple is destroyed and the Shechinah [God’s Presence] departs from Israel. As it says, “Do not defile the land in which you live and in which I live.” If you do defile it, you will not dwell in it, nor will I dwell in it.”
Why is the appropriate punishment for such corruption the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the loss of the Shechinah, and exile?

The Impact of Murder

Cleary, a nation that suffers from rampant violence and unchecked bloodshed is not fulfilling it basic obligation to provide security for its citizens. But from an ethical-spiritual perspective, murder reflects a far more tragic phenomenon.

The Torah describes the Divine aspect of the human soul with the term tzelem Elokim. What is this ‘image of God’? The Torah is teaching that the Divine attributes of goodness, of seeking to help others, of giving and nurturing, are inherent to the human soul. One who sheds blood has corrupted his soul to such an extent that he has completely reversed his innate tzelem Elokim. Instead of promoting life, such an individual causes its loss and destruction.

Destruction of the Temple

The Beit HaMikdash was not meant solely for the benefit of the Jewish people. When King Solomon built the Temple, he announced that it was “also for the stranger who is not from Your people Israel, but will come from a far country for the sake of Your Name” (I Kings 8:41). The Temple is meant to be a “house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7), a focal point spreading enlightenment and ethical teachings throughout the world.

However, to influence and better humanity requires that the ethical state of the Jewish people be healthy and strong. When Israel has fallen to the lowest levels of cruelty and violence, what kind of moral influence can the Beit HaMikdash provide to the world? How can the Temple service inspire other nations, when they see that its values have not even succeeded in reaching the Jewish people, correcting social injustice and eradicating bloodshed? Unable to serve its universal purpose, the Temple was destroyed.

Loss of Divine Presence

This explains the connection between a corrupt society and the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. What about the second consequence, the departure of the Shechinah?

We must first understand the significance of God’s Presence dwelling in Israel. The national soul of the Jewish people contains aspirations far greater than normal social ethics. Our objective is not just to create a smooth-running social order that provides safety and security for its members. What point is there in creating a selfish, materialistic society, even if its citizens are protected from violence and instability?

This is where the Shechinah comes in. The Jewish nation has an inner holiness that elevates the value of life itself. Through the Divine Presence, the nation’s soul aspires to the highest and loftiest good possible. It strives to live according to the most elevated, Godly values.

But spiritual goals are like building blocks, attained step by step. The nation must first acquire a basic moral level, those common mores appreciated by all peoples. Only then is it possible to aspire to special levels of holiness. If the Beit HaMikdash is no longer standing due to a corrupt and immoral society, how can the soul of the nation attempt to elevate itself to its unique goals? In such a state the Shechinah departs from Israel.

Exile from the Land

The third punishment for national corruption is exile. The dwelling of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael is tightly bound to its positive influence as a nation. Certainly much holiness and enlightenment can be gained from righteous individuals. But the impact of a holy nation, expressing holiness in all aspects of its national life, is of a far greater magnitude.

When the Jewish people ceases to have a positive influence on other nations, as indicated by the destruction of the Temple and the departure of the Shechinah, then even their continued dwelling in the land of Israel is called into question. “If you defile the land, you will not dwell in it and I will not dwell in it.”

Adapted from Ein Eyah III p188


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