Drash on Parashat Matot-Masei
Rabbi Gersh Lazarow
Ety Chayim Progressive Synagogue
The King David School
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
One of the great pleasures of being a School Rabbi is that I have the opportunity to spend much of my day surrounded by children who often say the most remarkable things. Their comments reflect what that they have learnt in class or seen at home or on television. Sometimes they are amazingly wise, occasionally they are a little inappropriate and often they are just hysterically funny. One thing is for sure however, not a single day will go past when I don't hear at least one of our student say, “I swear to God that I will ...”
While I would love to suggest that this common school yard expression is a clear demonstration of how our students have internalized the teachings from this week’s Parasha Matot Masei - that explains that “if a man takes a vow to the Eternal or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do” (Numbers 30:3) - the reality is that they just believe that by using this formula they are more likely to convince their peers that the promise will be kept.
Making a commitment and not keeping it is sometimes a habit of children. Whether it is a promise to clean their room or an agreement that they forget about, children often need to be reminded of their previous words. It is an important part of the journey of parents and teachers to help children learn how powerful verbal promises are, and to teach them to be careful about making commitments that they may not be able to fulfil. As children learn and grow into maturity, they will, we hope, only make vows that they intend to keep, and then harmonise their words with their actions.
When the Israelites began their journey out of Egypt, almost four decades before the events in this week’s Torah portion, they were psychologically, emotionally and spiritually young. They had been slaves — not just physically, but spiritually as well. They needed one miracle after another to keep their faith in the Eternal, and they constantly demonstrated their immaturity in their words and actions.
But 40 years in the desert brought a wisdom and maturity that allowed them to be ready for the statement made at the start of the portion.They had learned the value of keeping a vow and the pain of having vows broken. They were finally ready to hear Moses instruct them in God’s teaching that a man should do whatever he commits to from his mouth. They had grown, understanding that their words and actions must always be in harmony, and were finally ready to enter the Promised Land.
We are regularly confronted in the media with the “role models” of business leaders and politicians as well as sports and entertainment “icons” who break their verbal commitments. Our children see that when someone breaks a promise they are still idolised. All too often this is the norm in pop culture: A broken promise is not really that important. But Torah teaches the exact opposite, and this is what we must teach our children. We are commanded to take our words seriously, to not take a vow or oath lightly, and to do what has “come from our mouth.” How much more beautiful and in harmony would the world be if our children can learn this lesson rather than its opposite? How much more balance will occur if children decide to emulate the person who keeps their word?
As we end this year and prepare for the High Holy Days, we need to remember to both be careful of the words we speak and to do that which we promise. Most important, we must teach future generations to have the maturity of the Israelites as they were about to enter the Promised Land. We need to teach and instruct them to both be careful of making vows and to act upon their words.
If we can teach this simple lesson, we truly will leave the world a better place than we found it.