Maybe the dog will die.

"Better not to vow than to vow and not fulfill" but We all seem to hope that we will never be called upon to carry out the obligations we assume.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple

Judaism Bad dog
Bad dog


Parashat Mattot opens with laws concerning the making of vows.

Whatever the occasion or the content of the vow, the Torah is adamant: "Lo yachel d'varo": "A person must not break his word; he shall do according to all that comes out of his mouth" (Num. 30:3).

The Midrash, recognising the human tendency to put things off, adds, "For he knows not when his hour of death will come".

We all seem to hope that we will never be called upon to carry out the obligations we assume.

At school we look forward to being saved by the bell. In a hundred and one other contexts we dream of circumstances changing to such an extent that our promises will be swept up and swept away and never need to be fulfilled.

The old Jewish story from somewhere in Eastern Europe is pertinent.

The baron threatened to expel the Jews of the town. After the rabbi's anguished plea, the baron relented to the extent of saying, "Well, teach my dog Hebrew within a year and you can all stay".

The congregation were aghast that the rabbi agreed to the condition. "How could you accept something impossible like this?" they demanded, but the rabbi, quite unshaken, replied, "Anything can happen in a year; maybe the baron will die, maybe the dog will die…"

Unfortunately, the "maybe the dog will die" philosophy does not usually work. In most cases the things we undertake do have to be carried out.

"Better not to vow than to vow and not fulfil", says King Solomon (Kohelet 5:4).


Moses is told (Num. 31:1) to avenge the Israelite grievance against the Midianites and then "be gathered to your people".

The reference is obviously to death but it is articulated gently. The text does not say bluntly "you shall die" but it uses a softer phrase, "you shall be gathered to your people".

Throughout the ages people have used euphemisms about death. A typical example is "he passed away".

We understand why the preference for gentle language, but why the phrase "to be gathered to one’s people"?

It originates in Gen 25:8, in relation to Abraham. Sforno says on that passage in Genesis that "people" is not necessarily to be understood in an ethnic sense. It is not a reference to one’s tribe or nation, but to their ethics and character. The word "people" in this context means one’s righteous ancestors.

The person who dies after a good, upright life is metaphorically enrolled in the historical record of the righteous.


Listing the 42 journeys of the Children of Israel after they left Egypt, the Torah says (Num. 33:17), “They journeyed from Kiv’rot HaTa’avah and encamped at Chatzerot“.

Geographically these are merely the names of stopping places in the wilderness.

Translated, the first name means “Graves of Desire”, and the second means “Courtyards”. Preachers have often discovered a link between them.

The idea is this: lust and sinfulness besmirch our character, take the meaning and purpose out of human life and symbolically bring us down to the grave.

It is still possible, though, for us to repent, lift ourselves up out of a “virtual” grave (see the “Valley of Bones” story in Ezekiel 37) and live again in God’s courts (see Psalms 84 and 92).