With this week’s double portion we come to end of the fourth Torah book. Numbers ends with details regarding confrontation with Midian (31), laws regarding conduct in war and the grand scheme of dividing the lands of Canaan and surrounding area as the Israelites prepare to march in to the Promised land.(32ff). There are also instructions regarding Cities of Refuge and aspects of what constitutes homicide (35) However, the portions begin with a series of verses that discuss the making of vows. “If a mean makes a vow to God or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” (30:2)
We have commented before in the Dvar Torah column, about the tradition’s focus on the power of words. Here is another text that commentators have looked at and spun in a variety of ways. You know the interpretations of the Commandment that teaches that words can kill. No doubt your rabbi has preached a sermon that discusses this issue and maybe has reflected upon the famous Midrash that speaks of the pillow and the feathers and the challenge of putting feathers back into the pillow. What is always fascinating is how the Torah portion somehow speaks to current events. It takes just a small jump from text to TV to see how relevant this section of Matot can be.
The power of what we say, either words of our mouths, or via electronic speech, has never been more present. I think that one of the gifts of our own aging is the very real understanding of just how powerful what someone says can be. We are often conditioned to think of the negative words, yet, just think how often, and how powerful words of comfort, consolation, support, encouragement and love have been and can be. Perhaps it is part of our growing appreciation of the value of gratitude and the knowledge that by saying words of praise and thanks we acknowledge again the fragile nature of our relationship to life. The daily prayers of the “nisim b’chol yom” (miracles of daily life) express, in many ways, through the words of our mouth the gratitude that we are alive; just as the morning declaration of “modeh ani” (I give thanks) us uttered as we awake. Perhaps in this day and age when so much negative language is current and accepted, part of the elder revolution can be to make sure we speak words of love and compassion, support and belief.
And we can end with the words associated with tradition when we end a book of study: “Chazak chazak, v’nitchazek”, let us be strengthened by our relationships with each other.
Rabbi Richard F. Address