The introductory subject of this week's Torah reading concerns itself with vows and commitments that a person takes upon himself or herself willingly, by simply stating his or her intention. The Torah places great emphasis upon the spoken word. Everything that is uttered from our mouths obligates us to the commitment attached to it.
Words are holy, and they are also binding. The Talmud records for us that a person who did not stand by his word regarding a commercial commitment, is allowed to be publicly rebuked in the synagogue, by the recitation of the statement that the Lord who repaid the generation of the flood for their evil, will also undoubtedly repay this person who has breached his word and trust.
Judaism recognizes that the basic physical difference between the human kingdom and the animal kingdom is one of speech and communication. The ability to speak and converse is seen as being a divine attribute somehow granted to human beings as well. Because of this, speech is to be treasured and not squandered.
Evil speech, slander, lies, and libel are all viewed as being a violation of the relationship between God and man. A person must always be careful with the words that one utters from one's mouth. They are more powerful and influential than we might imagine. This is especially true in our time in a generation of nonstop communication and constant speech, text, and statements through many devices, in addition to one’s mouth. The statements of the Rabbis of how people should be very cautious with the words that they use is certainly even more relevant to our generation.
It is interesting to note that this basic idea, upholding speech, and truth in words, was communicated personally to the heads and leaders of the tribes of Israel. It is in their presence where Moshe explains these laws that gives our reading its title of Matot. I think it is intentional that this concept was originally explained first to the leaders of the tribes, with its laws pertaining to true speech and binding commitment. They were meant to set the example for society, that speech should be honest.
It should be obvious that if we are unable to trust the words and commitments of our leaders, that our society would crumble and dissipate. One of the drawbacks of our system of democracy and of elections is that our politicians are constantly engaged in electioneering and running for office. They make grandiose promises and statements as to their policies before election. In almost all cases, these statements are, at best, an exaggeration, and, at worst, a total sham full of falsehood.
Because of our lifelong experience with political commitments, we expect that our elected officials, once in office, may not live up to the promises that they made in to be able to enter those offices. In order to mitigate this almost errant weakness in an otherwise healthy society, leaders should fulfill what they promise, and commitments should be upheld. I realize that this is a very high bar set for leadership in the Jewish people. But even if we cannot reach it, we should at least know that it is there.
Rabbi Berel Wein