Parashat Matot-Masei 2020

Special Bar Mitzvah D’var Torah

Shabbat Shalom! 

My Parsha begins with Moses telling the heads of the tribes of Israel that if a man makes a vow to God, or swears an oath, he shall carry out the obligations he has placed on himself. “He shall do whatever has come forth from his mouth.”

The rules are slightly different for a woman. She must also keep an oath she makes, unless her father (when she is a child) or her husband (if she is married) annuls it and makes it void of obligation. If she is widowed or divorced, she is required the same as a man to fulfill her obligations.

Obviously, there are some troubling hints of inequality here, but let’s set that aside for a moment to focus on vows. Why is it so important to fulfill your oaths that God had Moses instruct the Israelites of this commandment?

The first answer is that in our tradition, words are powerful. What you say matters. In Parshat Bereishit, the very first story in the Torah, God creates the world not through action, but through speech. Quote: “God said, ‘Let there be light!’—and there was light.” Unquote. The Midrash teaches us that the whole world was created by 10 words.

Vows have the power to build connections between people by building trust. If on 10 different occasions you promise someone something, and 10 times you do what you promised, the next time you make a vow, they trust that you will follow through.

Also, if you do something again and again, you gain confidence that you can do it. The more you do it, the more you identify as someone who keeps their promises.

Vows also create an expectation for action—to do something (or not do something for that matter). This helps create progress.

Besides the vows you make to others, you can make a vow to yourself. One example is New Year’s resolutions. They are commitments you make to do something differently, such as to exercise more, or to eat less junk food. These vows lead to the progress of self-improvement and are no less important than the first ones. You need to respect yourself as you respect others.

On the other hand, if you 10 times make a vow and follow through only once or

twice, or maybe never, no one will trust your word the next time you make a promise. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. A broken promise breaks trust. And without vows, people aren’t accountable.

According to Ecclesiastes, Chapter 5, Verse 4, “It is better that you not vow, than that you should vow and not fulfill.”

Sometimes it’s easy to commit to something without really meaning it. Like when you say to a friend, “Yeah, I’ll read that book you recommended” when you aren’t actually interested in reading it. It might not seem like a big deal, but what impact does it really have? In my opinion, never meaning a vow yet still saying it is worse than breaking a vow you initially meant to keep. At first, it might just make you feel bad for a little bit. But over time, frequently making promises you don’t intend to keep lessens the importance of your word.

Imagine the first time you get to go to Disneyland—you’re super excited! As you get closer to the day you go, you can’t think of anything else and nothing seems more important than getting to go. It’s a big deal. But then imagine if you lived next door to Disneyland and went every day after school. In that scenario, going to the amusement park loses the wow factor and no longer seems as fun. It’s not a big deal.

In the same way, if you knowingly make vows you don’t mean, your word becomes less and less valuable and it’s no longer a big deal to break your vow.

In his book Man’s Quest for God, Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel tells us, “We shall never be able to understand that the spirit is revealed in the form of words unless we discover the vital truth that speech has power, that words are commitments.” 

With that power in mind, words should not be used carelessly. In Judaism, we are taught not to engage in lashon hara, which translates to “evil speech” and generally refers to gossip and slander.

Our tradition says that the harm that can be caused by words is worse than the harm from stealing. While financial amends can be made for stealing, you cannot repair the damage of evil speech.

A Chasidic story makes this point: A man went around the community telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized what he had done was wrong and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged for forgiveness, saying he would do anything to make amends. The rabbi tells the man to take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds. The man thought this was a strange request, but it was simple enough, and he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the rabbi that he had done it, the rabbi said, ‘Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have caused than you can recollect the feathers.’”

There is also an episode of the TV sitcom “The Office” about the inability to take back a rumor once it has been spread, but I’ll tell you that story another time.

Finally, Judaism is a religion of action. What is most important is what we do in the world, and less about what we believe in. In fact, believing in God is not a requirement to be a Jew; Jews are encouraged to wrestle with ideas like that. Rather, we are required to perform mitzvot, such as to observe Shabbat, not commit murder, honor your parents, visit the sick, and welcome the stranger.

When thinking about this in the context of vows, it seems clear that Judaism would have high expectations for someone to actually do what they promise to do.

To me, that is the most important message of my portion—if you promise something, you should do as you say. Words have value and power and we need to follow through on our words and promises.

When reading this Parasha, I asked myself—what are the vows and promises I am making today, when I become a Bar Mitzvah? 

As a member of a family, I am committed to them, and to love them. 

As a member of the congregation, my commitment is to live a Jewish life and to practice Judaism. 

As a human being, my vows are to obey laws, and to try to do good deeds to make a better world.

In Orchot Tzadikim, a book on Jewish ethics written in the 15th century, it says: “Before you speak, you are the master of your words. After you speak, your words master you.”

Choose your words carefully.

I want to finish with thanks to all who helped me preparing for my Bar Mitzvah, to Congregation Kol Shalom, and to my relatives and friends present at the Zoom streaming, and to family. I love you!

Shabbat Shalom!