How to Vow Your Audience
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel . . . (Bamidbar 30:2)
What will Moshe speak about to the heads of the tribes? He is about to
speak about the concept of Nedarim and Shavuos - Vows and Oaths. However,
is this not something that is applicable to all of the Jewish people? Why
did Moshe single out the heads of the tribes specifically to teach these
laws? Rashi asks this question, and answers:
HEADS OF THE TRIBES: What did he want to say here? He wanted to teach that
the annulment of a vow should be through an individual who is an expert in
such matters (like the heads of the tribes, assumedly), and only if there
isn't such an individual available can one turn to a Bais Din of three
ordinary people. (Rashi)
Why is this so important to know? Because, a person is given the power to
invoke a vow or an oath, and in doing so, placing upon himself, others, or
objects, a status equal to that of a commandment from the Torah. For
example, just as the Torah has forbidden certain foods to be eaten, so can
a person forbid other foods to himself that would otherwise have been
permissible to eat; they actually become prohibited to him. If he eats such
food, he is punishable as if he ate food the Torah itself had prohibited.
Likewise, through an oath, one can create a binding situation that
otherwise would not have existed. He can prohibit himself from doing
something permissible, or make obligatory an act the Torah did not. Failure
to comply with his oath makes him culpable for punishment, just as if the
"mitzvah" had been commanded by the Torah. Such is the power of speech.
Thus, before we allow someone to annul a vow, we have to ascertain that
there is sufficient Torah cause to do so. Talk may be cheap to some, but
from a Torah point of view, it is man's most creative power, capable of
establishing reality. G-d made creation using speech, and man becomes a
partner with G-d in bringing creation to fulfillment through his own power
Thus, in the script used to write a Sefer Torah, the letter Peh, which
itself means "mouth," has the letter Bais inside of it (the negative space
forms the letter), the first letter of the Torah and the word "Bereishis."
It's as if the Bais, which represents creation, is emerging from the Peh,
which it did when G-d spoke creation into being.
To sensitize us to our power of speech, the Arizal revealed that every word
that leaves a person's mouth creates an angel. Good words, that is, words
of which the Torah approves, create good angels, whereas bad words create
bad angels, or prosecuting angels, both of which show up on our behalf or
against us on Yom HaDin, the day of Final Judgment.
Thus, we have the concept of, "al tiftach peh l'Satan," which translates
as, "Do not open you mouth to the Satan" (Kesuvos 8b). It seems that
somehow, by bragging about something, we invite disaster, in the form of
the Satan, or rather, the Prosecuting Angel (same thing) doing a serious
investigation into our right to own such a good thing. Verbally calling
attention to something good can create a reality of Divine judgment, as we
see from the beginning of the story of Iyov. If only G-d hadn't bragged
about Iyov's righteousness . . .
If a man takes a vow to G-d or swears an oath to establish a prohibition
upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word. (Bamidbar 30:3)
What is actually going on when a person makes a vow? Does he really affect
reality, or do we just pretend as if he does?
To begin, you have to recall two of the most important relevant to this
discussion. To begin with, Targum Onkeles provides a very short but crucial
key to understanding the essence of this discussion, back by the creation
G-d formed man from dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils a
living soul, and the man became a living spirit. (Bereishis 2:7)
From this posuk, we only know that man left the stage of being a lifeless
form and became a living person. The "living soul" he received brought him
to life, allowing him to accomplish that which man was meant to achieve.
But what was man meant to achieve?
The Talmud says:
Rebi Elazar said: Every man was created to toil, as it says, "Because man
was made to toil" (Iyov 5:7). Now, I do not know if that means to toil
through speech, or in actual labor; however, once it says, "A toiling soul
toils for him, for his mouth compels him" (Mishlei 16:26), I know that a
person was created to toil with his mouth. I do not know, though, if this
means to toil in Torah or just in regular conversation. However, once it
says, "This Torah should not leave your mouth" (Yehoshua 1: 8), I know that
man was created to toil in Torah [through speech]. (Sanhedrin 99b)
A remarkable statement to make, and an even harder one to accept for a
society that holds talk is cheap and action is everything. However, Onkeles
corroborates this idea by revealing that the single biggest difference
man's soul made to his being was that he became:
ALIVING SPIRIT: A speaking spirit. (Onkeles)
Even one of man's greatest creative actions, procreation, makes a reference
back to speech. For Bris Milah itself means "Covenant of the Word,"
reminding man that, just as he is capable of performing a physical act to
create something physical, so too can he perform a spiritual act - speech -
and create spiritual realities. And, just as the physical act, when abused,
can result in horrific destruction, so too can the spiritual act, when
abused, result in horrific destruction, though it may not be apparent at
Now we can better appreciate the severity of loshon hara, and the Talmud's
evaluation of its potential to damage:
It was taught in the school of Rebi Yishmael: Anyone who speaks loshon hara
increases his sins corresponding to three transgressions: idol worship,
illicit relations, and murder. (Arachin 15b)
Coming from a world of action, it is hard to believe this can be true. Talk
shows may be popular to some extent, but it is action movies that Hollywood
turns out at break neck pace, and which rake in hundreds of millions of
dollars. When was the last time they produced a big budget talk show for
the silver screen?
However, if you think about it, worshipping false gods, illicit
relationships, and murder is something we have in common with the animal
world. It doesn't take much to train even larger animals to fear and
worship man, and physical relationships in the animal kingdom are just
that: animalistic. Murder, of course, is the name of the game when it comes
to surviving out in the wild, except that it is only called "killing" since
it is for survival purposes and built into the species.
In other words, it does not take a G-dly soul to perform such activities
for good, so it doesn't take a G-dly soul to perform them for evil either.
However, speech is, by definition, a function of our G-dly soul, and
therefore any abuse of speech, is by necessity, an abuse of one's G-dly
soul. Indeed, according to Kabbalah, of the four aspects of creation, man,
the highest of the four after Domaim (Silent, as in the mineral world),
Tzomayach (Vegetation), Chayah (Living Beings, as in animals), is labeled
as a Medabehr - a Speaker.
This is certainly something to think about seriously before opening one's
mouth to speak each time.
According to what comes from his mouth he shall do. (Bamidbar 30:3)
That shows the exceptional importance of speech, but it does not explain
how speech itself manipulates reality. To show that, we need only go back
one parshah, and to a person who appeared to understand this, but in the
end, really didn't. That's why his death is recorded in this week's
parshah, right after this parshah of Nedarim.
"For I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is
cursed." (Bamidbar 22:6)
However, Bilaam answered
"If Balak will give me his houseful of silver and gold, I cannot transgress
the word of G-d, my G-d, to do anything small or great." (Ibid. 18)
Why? As G-d told Bilaam,
"If these men came for your benefit, then go with them. However, only that
which I tell you will you will be able to do." (Ibid. 20)
Was that only the case with Bilaam, whose power was in his mouth, as Balak
said at the beginning of last week's parshah (See Rashi)? No, it is the
case with every human being, as the prophet taught:
My spirit that is upon you and My words that I have placed in your mouth"
This people I created to speak My praises. (Yeshayahu 43:21)
This is what we exist to do, and speech being the breath of G-d is always
the breath of G-d. The only question is, if that is the case, then how is
it possible that people can speak so abusively?
The answer is not unlike the one that Rashi gives at the beginning of
Parashas Noach to a similar question: How is the creation of a mamzer
possible? After all, is it not G-d Who gives the soul to the body that the
father and mother, in this case illegitimately, create for the child?
Yes, and that was one of G-d's main complaints against the Generation of
the Flood. Not only did you sin, but you forced Me to have to put souls
into the bodies of children that were born from forbidden relationships. If
I didn't, G-d said, then free-will choice would suffer, since people would
see that forbidden relationships do not bear offspring.
Likewise, when we speak in an "unkosher" way, we are forcing the Spirit of
G-d to be party to our own abuse, which It puts up with for the sake of
free-will choice. However, like the Generation of the Flood, there is a
great price to be paid for such chillul (profanation), and the system of
good and bad angels is the way Heaven keeps tally of the way we use our
mouths during our lifetimes.
This is the power of a neder or a shavuah. We are working in partnership
with the Spirit of G-d within us to establish realities meant to help us
reach higher levels of growth. Bilaam understood this, and he still tried
to abuse the power. Pinchas understood this as well, and used the power to
save the Jewish people supernaturally, and killed Bilaam in the process.
Thus, he received the "yud" in his name as a reward, which transformed his
name from "peh" to "pea," from "mouth" only to "MY mouth," as in the mouth
of G-d, so-to-speak.
In Preparation For Tisha B'Av, Part One
For it is not as man sees; man sees what his eyes behold, but G-d sees into
the heart." (I Shmuel 16:7)
The Talmud introduces a fascinating concept:
Rav Nachman asked Rav Yitzchak: Why does it say, "I will not carry out My
wrath; I will not recant and destroy Ephraim, for I am God and not a man;
the Holy One is in your midst, and I will not enter a city" (Hoshea 11:9)?
Because "the Holy One is in your midst" [God says,] "I will not enter a
city?" Rebi Yochanan answered: The Holy One, Blessed is He, said that He
would not enter Jerusalem Above until He could enter Jerusalem Below.
Rashi explains the question and answers as follows: If God is in your
midst, that is, if you improve your actions, will God not come into your
city? The answer is, until you allow the Holy One to enter below, that is,
into Jerusalem, [He says] "I will not come into the city above."
However, that is not the main point here. What is relevant to this
discussion is that there are two Jerusalems, an earthly one and a Heavenly
one. We can't really say that about any other city in the world, no matter
how popular, big, or successful they may be. Only Jerusalem has a Heavenly
counterpart, which tells you right away about the Jerusalem with which we
are most familiar.
Indeed, Ya'akov himself sensed this reality the night that he slept on the
Temple Mount - Har HaMoriah - and had his dream of the ladder:
Ya'akov awoke from his sleep and said, "Indeed, God is in this place, and
yet I didn't know it." And he became frightened and said, "How awesome is
this place! It is none other than the House of God, and this is the gate of
Heaven." (Bereishis 28:16-17)
According to the Midrash, Ya'akov's dream was of the future Jewish exiles
(Vayikra Rabbah 29:2), four in total: Babylonian, Median, Greek, and Roman.
It was as if all of Jewish history flowed from Heaven to earth at that
point, and Ya'akov lay in the midst of that flow.
Indeed, even today:
All of this [rectification] occurs as a result of His holy light, which
emanates out from and dwells upon the Western Wall. From there it emanates
and dwells upon Israel, and this is the holy Divine Presence . . .
(Sha'arei Leshem, p. 87)
The Midrash says that Ya'akov also had a vision of the ramp leading up to
the altar in the future Temple (Bereishis Rabbah 68:16). After that, he saw
how that Temple would be consumed by fire, and how in seventy years, the
construction of the second Temple would begin (Ibid. 69:6). And, knowing
that more exiles were still yet to come after the return to Eretz Yisroel,
he knew that the second Temple would also be destroyed, and that long, hard
exiles would continue until the destined arrival of Moshiach himself.
The Talmud speaks of another historical relationship regarding
Yerushalayim. It says:
Caesaria and Yerushalayim: If someone tells you that both are destroyed, or
both are settled, do not believe him. That Caesaria is destroyed and
Yerushalayim is settled, or Yerushalayim is destroyed and Caesaria is
settled, believe him. (Megillah 6a)
From this statement, it seems that the two cities, Caesaria belonging to
the Romans, and Yerushalayim belonging to the Jewish people, are polar
extremes, radically different. Apparently, the world as it was created does
not support the coexistence of such two contrary realities, and this is
reminiscent of another pair of extreme opposites:
Eisav said to his father, "Is there only one blessing that you have, my
father? Bless me too." And Eisav raised his voice and wept. Yitzchak his
father answered, and said to him, "Your settlements will be in fat places
of the earth, and [you will also have] from the dew of heaven above. You
shall live by your sword, and serve your brother. Yet it shall be that when
you are aggrieved, you may cast off his yoke from upon your neck."
The Midrash explains that Yitzchak was telling Eisav that, if Ya'akov's
descendants cast off the yoke of Torah, then his descendants could decree
destruction upon them and gain sovereignty over of them. In other words, as
long as Ya'akov remained "settled," that is, devoted to Torah, then Eisav
would remain "destroyed." However, if Ya'akov became "destroyed," that is,
he abandons Torah, then Eisav will become the "settled" one, controlling
the world and subjugating his younger brother.
Thus, the status of Yerushalayim is also a measure of the Jewish people's
place in the family of nations, whether they are its king or its servant.
Thus, it is Yerushalayim specifically that Gog and Magog wish to control,
for its destruction, be it physical, spiritual, or both, means that
Caesaria - the world of Eisav - is able to thrive.
However, what does that have to do with B'nei Yishmael, and the Arab
interference with the return to Yerushalayim and sovereignty over Har HaBayis?
The Midrash relates how Eisav wanted to murder Ya'akov [after the latter
secretly took the blessings meant for his brother. However, he worried that
killing him outright would bring him capital punishment from the court of
Shaim and Eiver. Therefore, he schemed to involve a third party in the
assassination, which he did by marrying Machlas, daughter of Yishmael
(Bereishis Rabbah 67:8)
According to the Midrash, Eisav had planned to incite Yishmael against
Ya'akov. For, just as Ya'akov had usurped Eisav's role as the firstborn,
Yishmael's younger brother - Yitzchak Avinu - had also pushed him out of
the first position in Avraham's family. And, though his scheme was never
fulfilled, apparently the groundwork was laid for collaboration between the
descendants of Eisav and Yishmael to conspire against B'nei Ya'akov.
Thus, the Ya'akov-Eisav relationship is the paradigm, and the
Yerushalayim-Caesaria relationship is a function of it. To control
Yerushalayim, therefore, is to control Ya'akov, to a large extent, and to
hold off the Final Redemption, as the following makes clear:
The following great idea of the [Vilna] Gaon became known: there are only
two commandments which a person's entire body has to enter into in order to
fulfill them: the commandment of succah, and that of Eretz Israel. This is
hinted to in the posuk, "Then His Tabernacle (succo) was in Shalem, and His
Dwelling in Tzion" (Tehillim 76:3). The Gaon adds that the commandment
regarding succah requires one to construct it for this purpose, that is, to
fulfill a positive commandment, and not to use that which previously
existed. It is likewise with respect to Tzion, as it states in the Midrash
on the posuk, "A redeemer will come to Tzion" (Yeshayahu 59:20). For, as
long is Tzion is not yet built, the redeemer will not come. As Chazal have
said, only "after Jerusalem is built, will the son of David will come"
(Megillah 17b). According to the Midrash, the Ben Dovid will not come until
Jerusalem is built. (Chapter 1:7)