Parashat Matot-Masei, Numbers 30:2 - 36:13
“When a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; all that crosses his lips he must do” (K’chol ha’yotzei mepeev ya’aseh). (Numbers 30:3)
A man is bound by his words. Words exist in our minds as well as on our lips but they must cross our lips in order to become real. There are very few cases in the rabbinic tradition or the Tanach where thoughts are punishable or even taken very seriously. However, as soon as words have “crossed lips” and become real things they must be taken seriously. Indeed, the hebrew “davar” can mean either “word” or “thing”. We atone for actions and words; not for mere thoughts.
The Torah present us with a discussion of the power of words and vows here at the very end of the book of Numbers, right before the Israelites are about to enter the land. Perhaps its location here serves to remind us of where we came from and where we are going. As slaves leaving Egypt we had no responsibility; our words meant nothing. We were as children. We then wandered through the desert for a generation undergoing physical and spiritual challenges and learning what it means to become a people as opposed to an oppressed group. In essence, we went through adolescence and were now ready to become adults.
Moshe and Aaron taught us God’s expectations - to keep the mitzvot, to conquer the land, to engage in community through imparted values. Our words now had significance. We were no longer a people alone but a people standing with God. Therefore what we say, whenever and wherever we say it, matters.
From this point onwards vows and oaths taken in God’s name would be taken very seriously. A free man was expected to carry out whatever “crossed their lips” and, for a free man, there was no option of nullification. However, people who lived under the authority of others, such as a girl in her father's home or a wife in her husband’s could have their vows nullified by their father or husband. To have your vows fully and irredeemably binding is a sign of full unmediated citizenship and relationship with God. In the world of the Bible women were yet to stand in that unmediated relationship.
It is extremely difficult to live in a world where you are accountable for every utterance. The Biblical story of Jephthah/Yiftach in the book of Judges (Chapter 11) is a cautionary tale about what happens when all your utterances before God must be honoured. The rabbis came to recognize that people often speak without thought and need some leeway when it comes to vows. They demanded a highly refined and specific formula for making vows that would limit unintentional vowing and they also created a radically new structure for the annulment of vows. The rabbis themselves stood in the breach to save people from their own foolish words.
In today’s modern world speech is not legally regulated in the way that it was in biblical or rabbinic times. In the US we pride ourselves on the First Amendment, a law that protects our right to free speech. The legal protection of speech liberates us to be personally responsible for the way we use language. No people has ever been free like the Americans; free to stand in a fully unmediated way before God. Here we must be fully cognizant of the words, and promises, that issue from our mouths. No one will save us from our oaths here except ourselves.
Co-written with Rabbi Joel Levy, Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, for the Washington Jewish Week, Summer 2016.