By Shlomo Riskin
For me, the saddest Book of the Bible is the Book of Numbers according to the Greek, Latin and English translations and the Book of the Desert according to most renderings of the Hebrew Bamidbar. It begins with a sublime description of the twelve tribes, united by the great liberator-leader Moses, stationed and bannered surrounding the sanctuary of the Divine Presence, poised to enter the promised land of Israel, and it concludes in disgruntled disillusionment, a catalogue of reversions, rebellions and recalcitrance, with Moses discredited and disregarded by the people, forbidden to enter his beloved Israel by God, and virtually the entire desert generation doomed to die in the wilderness of their wanderings.
These last two portions of Matot-Masei seem to at least provide a ray of hope for continuity, and they serve as the segue into the Book of Joshua and the eventual conquest of the land of Israel. This bridge actually begins at the end of the portion of Pinchas, with a second, truncated census (which suggests a new, if sobered, beginning), then the daughters of Tzlofhad who valiantly struggle for inheritance rights to land in Israel, Moses’s bittersweet glimpse of Israel from atop Mount Neboh, the appointment of Joshua, the sacrifices for the Festivals, the settling of scores with Midian, the two and one-half tribes who wish to settle Trans-Jordan, a record of the desert way-stations, the procedure for the parceling out of the land, the areas set aside for Cities of Refuge and a final tribute to the faith and persistence of the daughters of Tzlofhad. All of these accounts provide closure to the desert generation and pave the way for the generation of conquest and inheritance – except for what appears to be a disjunctive legal intrusion right at the beginning of Matot.
Our Torah reading begins: “When an individual makes a promise before the Lord or makes an oath prohibiting something upon himself, he dare not profane his word” (Num. 30:2-17). The Biblical text goes on to delineate the various kinds of oaths an individual can make, including vows to God, as well as oaths that may impinge on relationships with one’s spouse or parents. In fact, it is this segment of 16 verses which serves as the basis for no less than two Talmudic Tractates (Shavuot and Nedarim) and provides the theme for the haunting Kol Nidre prayer which opens our Yom Kippur liturgical service. Why attribute such overriding importance to the laws of oaths and promises, and why place it here at the end of the Book of Numbers?
I believe that the Torah is here stressing the power of the word – the word that can create reality and the word which can destroy reality, the word which can establish a relationship and the word which can besmirch a relationship. After all, we are the people of the word, the Ten Words (Dibburim, Dibrot), which continue to influence the standards of world morality to this very day. Moses’ inability to properly utilize the word – to speak to the rock rather than strike the rock (and the rock is probably symbolic of the Israelite nation, hard-necked and stubborn as a rock) is what causes him to be banned from entering the Promised Land.
Indeed, from the very outset of his ministry, Moses seeks to deflect the Divine Call and to cast God’s call for leadership upon another because he feels that he is inadequate. He is a kvad peh heavy of speech, a man of thought rather than words, a prophet who seeks spiritual contact with the Divine rather than verbal relationships with people. He has neither the patience nor the wherewithal to verbally persuade the people to reject the report of the scouts and to conquer the land of Israel; he cannot even verbally defend himself against the hateful recriminations of Korach, Datan and Aviram! All he can do is to fall on his face in prostration before God. At the end of the day, the negative, inciting words of the ten scouts influence the nation and doom the generation to die in the desert. Korach’s unchallenged rebellion paved the way for Zimri’s flagrant defiance of Moses and his Torah morality. Just consider how Winston Churchill’s and Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats rhetoric uplifted a nation to transcend itself, and how Hitler’s incitements and Islamic Fundamentalist preachers have destroyed untold innocent lives.
From this perspective, the laws of oaths and promises, the legal ramifications of the power of the word, encapsulate the promise of the people of the word as well as the tragedy of the Book of Numbers. It is hardly accidental that the Hebrew and Aramaic word for leader is dabbar; for a great leader guides and directs by means of speech. I would even submit that the root word of Bamidbar is dbr, the leader-shepherd, who grazes his sheep in the oases found in the desert (he must walk his flock around arid land or else the sheep would destroy all the vegetation), and guides his flock largely by words and sounds which come forth from his mouth. In the words of the Yiddish folksaying,
A patsch dergent, a vort bashten – a slap goes away, a word lasts forever.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.