כ"ז תמוז ה' אלפים תש"ע
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In Parshat Mattot we are taught that there is a difference between the prophesy of Moses and all other prophets. While all the other prophets prophesied with the words “Thus God says,” Moses prophesied with the words “This is the matter that God has commanded.” All the other prophets prophesied through an “unclear” vision, while Moses, who spoke to God “face to face,” received his vision through a “clear” vision. In other words, the vision other prophets received were “approximate,” coming in the form of dreams, visions and symbolism which they then took and reformatted into an allegorical language appropriate for their audience. Moses though received and transmitted the word of God in a direct and unchanged manner.
The Torah portion of Mattot begins with the laws of vows and is introduced with the words “This is the matter that God has commanded.” Although there are other places where this language appears it is not that common, therefore we must ask what connection is there between the laws of vows and the introductory message that this is the exact and precise matter commanded by God.
At first glance it is not easy to understand due to the fact that the Sages taught that in fact it is much better not to make a vow at all. The reason is that a person’s word is considered very important and breaking a vow is a very serious issue, as it is stated: “If a man makes a vow to God, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds from his mouth” (Numbers 30:3). Since making a vow open up the possibility of people making vows they cannot, should not, or do not keep, the sages warned strongly about making vows in the first place. This is due to the fact that in many instances vows are made in the heat of the moment, in a fit of anger or extreme stress, and therefore do not reflect ones real desires or attitudes.
The question then becomes: if making a vow is strongly advised against and it is a very serious matter to make a vow and then break it, why then does the Torah allow vows whatsoever. The answer to this question will shed light on why it is introduced by words that imply a specific and clear thing that God has commanded.
Although it is true that many, if not most, vows are made in a moment of weakness or psychological pressure, there are times when making a vow can be a very positive thing. Sometimes we feel we have reached the end of our ability to deal with a situation or even life itself. Every strategy and plan we have used to change ourselves or a situation has failed and we feel desperate to cling to some affirming action that will get us through the day, will get us to the other side. When all else has failed and all the rules and laws in the book have not shown us the way, the Torah allows making a vow as a way to break through all obstacles and to achieve our goal.
This idea applies to the laws of the Torah itself. Sometimes the most important questions in life cannot be found neatly in black and white in the laws and mitzvot of the Torah. There are therefore times and circumstances where the Torah recommends for a person to create for a specific time and defined purpose their own mitzvah, as it were, in order to bind him or her to follow through and make fundamental changes in life. Therefore the Torah uses the language “This is the matter that God has commanded,” as it reflects the need for the vow to be a crystal clear and super focused vehicle to accomplish what nothing else has been able to do.
One more idea, connected to the two previous Torah portions is quite fascinating. We saw how in the portion of Balak, Pinchas took a spear, a ramach, which symbolized his ability to harness all his physical and spiritual energies in order to stand up and act as no one else could. Ramach equals 248, the same number as the positive mitzvot, as well as the number of limbs in the body, which emphasizes the ability of Pinchas to focus all his efforts towards a specific purpose. We then saw how this inspired the daughters of Tzelophchad to boldly step forward and request an inheritance in the land of Israel, even though it had not been commanded. We also learned how the ramach is shaped like the final letter nun which appears as a large letter in the judgment of the daughters of Tzelophchad.
Taking this idea one step further we see the word for vow, neder, also begins with the letter nun, and that the purpose of a vow is to also galvanize a person to concentrate all his or her energies in order to accomplish a goal where nothing else has succeeded. It is as if one who makes a vow is taking a ramach in hand and spearing the target with all their might. In this sense, a vow can hit the bull’s eye like nothing else and is similar to a prophetic clear vision, a face to face encounter with the Divine; as we are taught that one who makes an effort to purify himself from below, will be assisted greatly from on high.