Parshat Matot 2019
Say what you mean and mean what you say. Those are words to live by in clarity and honesty. Of course, those who don’t want to be clear or don’t really want to be held to their word would disagree. Today’s parsha deals with oaths and also, with the importance of the details we say.
Our parsha begins with the laws of vows, promises to God that we must keep, or else. It’s better not to vow than to vow and not fulfill it. All of that is contained in the second sentence of today’s parsha. Whatever a man vows, that he shall do. The next 13 verses deal with what happens when a woman makes a vow.
Wait a minute. A man’s vow takes one sentence to explain and a woman’s takes 13? Why? Last week I mentioned that women are not held in great respect in the Torah. In fact, women in the Torah are the property of men. They “belong” to their fathers before marriage and then they are sold or handed over to their husband’s rule after marriage. Here’s a serious warning: any man outside of ultra-orthodox circles who tries to implement such an approach today, takes his life in his hands. You have been warned.
The 13 sentences delineate what happens if an unmarried woman, a married woman, a widow or a divorcee makes a vow. Basically, if the man of the house nullifies the vow, the woman is not obliged to fulfill it. If he does not nullify it, she is obligated. If he does not nullify the vow, he in essence takes the vow upon himself and is obligated to uphold its conditions, or he will bear the punishment. These laws don’t jive with our modern sensibilities. They were promulgated for a society in which women were chattels.
Incidentally, the way politicians disregard their promises, might make us think that the ruling order has changed, and that men have received permission from their spouses to break their vows.
The end of the parsha deals with a totally different story, one in which everyone eventually agrees on the principal idea – but quibble over the words, or the order of the words.
The situation is tense. After 40 arduous years in the desert, the Israelites are finally ready to cross the Jordan and take over the land of Canaan. The tribes of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe and tell him that they don’t want to cross the Jordan; that they have lots of cattle and sheep, the grazing land in the Golan is great for cattle and sheep and they want to stay there.
Moshe quietly goes ballistic. Because a bunch of clowns he sent to Canaan reported that the land was too difficult to conquer he had to traipse through the desert for 40 years at the head of a cantankerous band of ingrates. Et tu Brutus? he is asking himself. This is the new generation. Does such obstinacy run in the genes?
So after the tongue lashing, the two tribes logically explain that they are fully willing to lead the tribes in war in Canaan, and to return to the Golan only after the tribes have settled in. But first they want to build pens for their sheep and homes for their children.
Surprisingly, Moshe repeats their terms but with two minor changes. First, they will be going, not in front of the children of Israel but in front of God. Remember who the boss is. Then, secondly, build cities for your children and fences for your sheep.
What’s the big deal here? As Rabbi Jonathan Sachs points out, Moshe, and Jewish leaders and families since then, put the children first. What concerned Reuven and Gad was their material wealth. Moshe was concerned about the future of the people, and the future lay with the children.
It’s fascinating to see how a few words can transmit a whole idea. If we read this chapter superficially, we don’t understand why the sides are repeating the details so often.
In point of fact, the presence of a seemingly superfluous section usually means “Read carefully!” Again, words count. The order of words counts. The ideas reflected in those words count.
The tension between the desires of Reuven and Gad, and the deal offered by Moshe, exists to this day. We have those who devote their all to growing their money while their children take second place.
It is interesting to note a change in many families in Israel. My children, and many of their friends, spend much more time with their children than we did with them. Fathers and mothers share the burdens and the chores of housekeeping and child-rearing, indicating that they understand what is important. But this does not occur in all families.
Concern and care for our children, including education for as many of them as possible, help to explain our survival and our success during two thousand years of wandering. Despite our reputation as the nation of the book and the start-up nation, recent trends in standardized international and local tests indicate a regression in education and its importance, for many reasons. Let us hope that the demands of big business, making money and political expediency (which is also connected to money) do not hinder efforts to keep our children and their education at the top of our priorities. This should be a vow, not to God but to ourselves, that we will continue to improve the education of our children.