Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise, Shabbat 24th Tamuz 5776, 30th July 2016
At the center of today’s parsha are vows, and instructions to the heads of the tribes how vows are to be kept and how they can be annulled. We could go into the lack of symmetry between the obligation of men and the obligation of women to fulfill their vows but that’s a subject for another year. Today we’ll focus on the importance of words in our parsha and in our everyday lives.
Vows actually become personal laws or obligations that we feel we must obey. They are, in essence, vows imposed by the state. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks lays out the three main reasons for obeying the law. One is our fear of punishment if we don’t obey. That of course, is the rule of power. Taken to an extreme, it may lead to corruption. The second reason is self-interest: it’s to our benefit to follow the law. This can obviously lead to greed, exploitation and a total lack of interest in what happens to others. The third reason or approach, which is introduced and expanded upon in the Torah, is the covenant. We follow laws because we have voluntarily agreed to sign a covenant, on moral grounds.
How does this work? The second half of our parsha offers an example. As Phillip read, Two and a half tribes decide that they don’t want to cross the Jordan to claim their inheritance west of the river. They have found their Eden and it is east of the Jordan.
What follows is a repetitive give-and-take between Moshe and the tribes. Moshe is beyond anger, ire and fury. In their words, the leaders of these people, 38 years later, are repeating the same mantras of their fathers who spoke out against entering the land.
But being Moshe, and realizing that he may create a total schism, he negotiates an acceptable covenant with these tribes. They must go forward – before God – to fight for the land. After the other tribes have been settled, according to God’s will, then and only then will they be entitled to return to their newfound lands.
Notice that Moshe invokes God’s name, to make sure that the tribes realize what an undertaking they are accepting. And if they do not fulfill their side of the bargain, they will have sinned before God and they should be aware of the sin they are perpetrating before God.
What punishment is there? Only knowing that they have sinned? If our leaders today were given such a choice – do what you are supposed to or you will be held responsible before God (not the police, not the Supreme Court, but before God) I am certain that the vast majority of our august leaders, including some quasi-religious leaders, would say, ho-hum, so let God sue me. But it seems that in the parsha, the tribes take this covenant, this vow seriously.
Taking a vow in our secular times is often limited to things like new year’s resolutions (and you know how long they last) or believing in some “ism”.
What draws people to an ideology, a political party in Israel or the US or Europe or the world? America’s longshoreman philosopher, Eric Hoffer, in his eye-opening book “The True Believer” had a few ideas on the subject.
“All mass movements, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred, and intolerance.” Sound familiar?
There’s more: “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, (see Communism) but never without belief in a devil.”
This has been the blatant strategy of ISIS and of Donald Trump. They play on hatred, fear, intolerance, excoriating the devils (non-Muslims, or immigrants and Muslims) and holding out the hope of overcoming all of them by following this leader.
But why go abroad? Our own versions of Trump are multiplying and becoming stronger with each passing day and month. Our political and religious leaders are busy weaving new scenarios that bring us face to face with – not people, not truths, not facts – but tapestries of ideas that are intended to play on our basest feelings and fears and to lead us to places we should not go.
And they are doing it by combining God (who is with US and US and US) and the devil (gays, women, reform and conservative Jews, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, secular or those who follow a different Hassidic rabbi). They get us coming and going. Machiavelli couldn’t have done it better.
Is that what we want? Is that what we need? That’s what we are getting with each new appointment, with each new party, with each new law that limits our choices.
The word, our word, our covenant with God and with ourselves, is being tested every day. We are now in the three weeks, which end with the anniversaries of the destruction of our First and Second Temples (among other atrocities). And we are taught that the second temple was destroyed because of baseless hate.
How comfortable our forefathers from Second Temple times would feel in today’s Israel as they experience the déjà vu of moral and political rifts and moral decline.
The problem is that some of these religious leaders believe in what they say, basing themselves on the Torah or the Mishna or whatever. They may even have some objective justification for speaking out against certain trends in our society. So, their words come from a belief that their way is THE way for all of us. The problem is that they are basing themselves on texts from two and three thousand years ago. Times are a’changing. Even the greatest rabbis over the generations realized that and ruled accordingly.
At least in our parsha the two and a half tribes got it right at the end. They said the right things and they kept their word, as far as we know. So there’s hope: that we will survive these three weeks and many more three weeks in the years to come.