I began working on this d'var Torah on the bus headed for Jerusalem on Sunday morning, to the Jerusalem segment of the worldwide protests against the "Roadmap." More on this later.
Moshe BurtMoshe Burt is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of the Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
Our parsha opens with Moshe speaking to the tribal leaders (matot) of B'nai Yisrael, saying, "If a man makes a vow to Hashem or makes an oath to obligate himself, he may not profane his word. He shall do all that he said." (Parshat Matot, 30:3)
Rashi says on the posuk that a vow (a "neder") speaks about making a thing ? a food or an activity ? prohibited to the one making the vow. One cannot swear, for instance, ?to eat the meat of an animal not ritually slaughtered.? As he explains, ?Since the neder form can only create a forbidden object, it must always prohibit activity and can never obligate a person to perform an activity. One may say, with the neder, ?this food is forbidden to me? but not ?I may not eat this food.?? Unlike the vow or neder, an oath, or shevuah, directly obligates the person swearing. Thus, an oath may be used directly obligating the one swearing and may be used for both positive or negative obligations. ?He shall not profane his word ? ...he should not make his words mundane.? (Rashi on parshat Matot, 30:3 ? Metsuda Chumash, Rashi, page 402)
In short, it is better not to make a vow or an oath than to make and later profane or violate it.
Shem Mishmuel brings a principle from Yalkut Shimoni, "Yisrael are bound by the command not to profane their words; the nations of the world are not." Shem Mishmuel then says that chazal don't simply mean that Klal Yisrael must keep their word, whereas others need not, he conveys that there is a deeper meaning.
With a mere declaration, a Jew can dedicate an item to the Beit HaMikdosh or prohibit its use by himself and others. Violations of such declarations are then considered a grave offense, punishable under the Torah framework. The power of speech, therefore, is sufficient to alter the nature of an object entirely, changing it from an ordinary object to a mitzvah item. Shem Mishmuel then brought a point made by Rabbeinu Yonah, an important medieval Talmudic scholar, who noted that if a Jew guards his mouth, reserving it only for holy purposes, it then becomes holy. The mouth then becomes like a sanctified vessel used in the Beit HaMikdosh. Once sanctified, the vessel conveys sanctity to everything making contact with it.
We are able to sanctify the world with our speech. The Torah warns us not to misuse this power by speaking nonsense or uttering vows that we will later profane. However, this is not the whole picture.
Hashem, through the prophet Yeshayahu, declares (in Yeshayahu 43:21), "This people I have formed for myself, they shall tell my praise." So speech is endowed with particular qualities - above and beyond those of the other parts of the body - which provide the world with sanctity. Klal Yisrael were created with the specific task of praising Hashem. "They were provided with this special ability, that of holy speech, with which to sanctify the physical world. The other nations of the world... have different functions than that of Yisrael. As such, they were not given this special power." (Shem Mishmuel on parshas Mattos, pages 364-365)
So what does this analysis of the power of speech, of words, have to do with the ?Roadmap? of today, and with the worldwide protest against it?
By way of mashal (allegory): I remember, back in Philadelphia, at the beginning of the ?Oslo process?, a rabbi suggested to his kehillah a projection of the implications of ?the process?. He opined that, at each step, the Jews would be, or would feel, compelled to keep to the letter of the provisions of ?Oslo?, despite the nullification of the previous aspects of the process by the actions of Arabs via terrorist attacks, drive-by shootings or stonings, which result in the continuing Jewish ?sacrifices for peace (sic)?.
In last June's major policy speech on the Middle East, American President George W. Bush called on the Palestinians (sic) to oust Arafat and to elect ?new and different leaders?. The President warned the Palestinian people, in a thinly veiled reference to Arafat, that the United States would not maintain relations with ?leaders who are compromised by terror.? But now, a year and a month later, we see Israel's prime minister publicly and unashamedly endorsing the ?Roadmap? and a ?palestinian (sic) state?. And we see Arafat's new disguise and ?new clothes?, the murderous Mahmoud Abbas ?in a business suit?.
So, what does this rehash of current events have to do with our parsha?s analysis of the power of speech?
Here we have our so-called ?close friend and ally?, the United States, who has for 55 years repeatedly pressured Israel into making moves detrimental to her security and to her populace, based on promises that were always later watered down so as to be nebulous. I will name just a few examples, although the instances of broken or badly compromised promises are multitudinous.
In 1956, the leader of the time, David Ben-Gurion, under immense pressure from the Eisenhower Administration, was compelled to pull IDF troops out of the Sinai in exchange for a UN presence at the Suez, in order to ensure free passage of shipping to and from Israel. In 1967, we saw how worthless this presence was, when Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser told the UN to ?get out.?
But let?s update the chronology about 20 years, to the case of Jonathan Pollard. Here, a signed, legally binding plea bargain agreement between the United States and Pollard was blatantly violated by the US, resulting in Pollard's languishing in prison, under poor conditions, with improper medical care, diet, etc., for some 17 years. And we have the documented story of how former President Bill Clinton reneged on his promise to Prime Minister Netanyahu to release Jonathan Pollard as part of the so-called ?Wye Agreement?. And we remember that Clinton had a second chance to keep his word to Israel when his term was up, a time when outgoing presidents generally give out many presidential pardons. Instead of using that opportunity to pardon Pollard, he instead pardoned Marc Rich, upon the behest of former Prime Minister Barak. Jonathan Pollard continues to languish in prison.
But let?s come back to the present. How about that agreement struck between Israel and the US, which was supposedly to put the six assassins (and/or co-conspirators) of Rehavem Ze?evi in prison in Jericho under watch of US and British Guards? What happened to this promise and agreement? At last reporting, we read that the prisoners live in a hotel-style atmosphere and are permitted free movement in and out of the domicile where they are supposedly ?being held?.
To try to explain what Torah laws regarding vows and oaths may have to do with international agreements involving modern-day Medinat Yisrael, I found in The Midrash Says on our parsha the story of an incident involving Babylonian ruler Nevuchadnetzar and the Jewish king, Tzidkiyahu.
Nevuchadnetzar treated his vassal, King Tzidkiyahu respectfully. When Tzidkiyahu visited Babylon to affirm his allegiance to the Emperor, Nevuchadnetzar granted him free access to the palace. He appointed Tzidkiyahu as ruler over the other kings of Edom, Moav, Ammon, Tzor and Tzidon. Tzidkiyahu once entered Nevuchadnetzar?s private dining area and found him eating limbs torn from a live hare. Eating the limbs of a live animal is forbidden under Noachide law even to a non-Jew. An embarrassed Nevuchadnetzar commanded that Tzidkiyahu swear never to reveal what he had witnessed.
Although Tzidkiyahu swore, he later regretted it and requested the Great Sanhedrin to annul his oath. The annulment proved fatal, as they were later put to death for annulling the oath.
Once, when Tzidkiyahu and the five kings he governed were conversing, the five ridiculed Nevuchadnetzar. They flattered Tzidkiyahu by telling him that he should be emperor, rather than Nevuchadnetzar. Tzidkiyahu promptly agreed and told them what he had witnessed in the Emperor's private dining room. The five kings immediately dispatched a messenger to Babylon to inform Nevuchadnetzar that ?the Jew whom you grant free access to your palace claims that he observed you eat a live animal.?
Nevuchadnetzar considered Tzidkiyahu?s revelation a treasonable act, but was unsure whether to punish only Tzidkiyahu or the entire Jewish people. He journeyed to the city of Daphne and ordered Tzidkiyahu and the Sanhedrin to appear before him. He commanded the Sanhedrin to speak Torah and they translated one parsha after another to him.
When they reached the subject of vows in parshas Mattos, the emperor queried them, ?If someone wishes to annul a vow, may he do so??
The Sanhedrin replied, ?He can go to a sage who has the authority to annul his vow.?
Nevuchadnetzar now realized how Tzidkiyahu was able to betray him.
The sages of the Sanhedrin appealed to Hashem to recall the great merits of their forefathers and to assist them. Hashem did not accept their prayers. Therefore, ?Nevuchadnetzar commanded that each member of the Sanhedrin be tied by his hair to a horse's tail and be dragged from Jerusalem to Lod. This tragic event was one of many which preceded the destruction of Jerusalem and the Beit Hamikdosh.?
I believe the point here is that B'nai Yisrael are held by ?the nations? to a higher code of perceived ethics than the nations themselves hold to. Israel is to be held to the exact letter of any such international agreement, while the other signatory can abrogate, default or render their agreed obligations null and void.
The powers-that-be in Medinat Yisrael have access to a full track record of multitudinous broken, compromised or nebulous promises made to them by the United States. Yet, the Israeli government has once again fallen prey and has acquiesced to the reshuffling or recycling of the same combination of former terrorists, with rap sheets a mile long. The government of Israel has signed onto a hudna, while Yasser Arafat and his murderous henchmen tool up again to cause more ?sacrifices for peace? before the newly-named altar, the ?Roadmap?.
Will Medinat Yisrael once again be compelled by Torah to keep yet another one-sided agreement, even as more Jews become ?korbonot?, now as before? And will the Medina buy into the ?temporary state? concept? Yitzhak Rabin?s claims from 1993 still ring: ?Well, if they?re bad boys, we?ll go and take it back.? Well, they were very bad boys and it took us eight-and-a-half years, many hundred Jewish dead and thousands wounded before we finally initiated Operation Defensive Shield.
Now, a year later, under the ?Roadmap?, we are again repeating the very same binding blunders, relinquishing what we held, opening our roads to free access by the Arabs and releasing terrorists with blood on their hands.
May we be zoche, through learning and applying our learning, and not depending totally on the leader to get it right for us, to achieve perfection of our internal and private middot and drachim: modesty; humility; gemilus chasadim; tzedakah; total honesty; and ahavas chinom for Kol Klal Yisrael on all levels ? personal, business, learning, etc. May we be zoche to have our tefillah reach Shemayim, unimpeded, ungarbled. May we be zoche to fulfill Hashem's blueprint for B'nai Yisrael, as a unique people, not to be reckoned as among ?the nations?, and to understand the ultimate implications of vows and oaths as they relate to promises or agreements defaulted on by the other party or ?entity?.
May we be zoche to demand, compel Hashem to do ?what he wants to do, to bring us the Moshiach and the Ge'ula Shlaima, the Ultimate Redemption, bim hayra v'yameinu ? speedily, in our time,? to bring us the time when all of us will have the great light of the Godol HaDor?s Torah. Achshav ? immediately ? etmol ? chik-chak!
Moshe Burt is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of the Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.