The concluding portion of Numbers greets us this Shabbat. Matot-Masey (Numbers 30:2-36:13) begins with a line that rings true in our world: “If a man 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.” (Numbers 30:3). Again, the power of word is presented to us. As we get older, we know that words have power and we come to understand with greater awareness how words can soothe and comfort, as well as hurt and even destroy. The tradition also knew that to have value and meaning, there needed to be connection between heart and mouth. In other words, be careful what you say and mean what you say from your soul.
We are cautioned throughout of tradition to be careful of what we say and how we say it. We are reminded of the seriousness of what we say, or vow, every Yom Kippur. Etc Hayim, the Torah commentary of the Conservative movement also reminds us that “The Bible stresses the power and the solemnity of words, from the opening verses of the Torah, in which God creates a world with words…”(p.941). Words, it is noted, is one of the ways we humans are distinguished from animals. Abraham Twerski, in his “Living Each Week” defines 5 ways that a human being can be defined. “1) A Human being has the capacity to learn from history. 2)A human being has the capacity to think about the purpose of his existence.3)A human being has the capacity to think about self-perfection and to imporve his character. 4) A human being has the capacity to make moral free choices, and not be dominated by biological drives. 5) A human being has the capacity to contemplate the consequences of his actions.” (p.357)
We include as part of prayer a plea that our tongues be prevented from speaking evil and that our lips not utter deceit. Words have power and, in a real way, do reflect our sense of how we see our world and our self and our relationship to powers beyond our own self. The world in which we live is overwhelmed by words. In many ways, we live in an age that suffers from a promiscuity of information. It is hard, at times, to see truth or value in the midst of the daily onslought of verbiage. Maybe this Torah portion can serve as a not so subtle reminder that we need to be aware of what we say, how we say things and, also, how people say the words they say. This is a lesson we often learn as we get a little life experience. It is interesting that at this time and place that the Torah is so relevant to the world in which we live.
Rabbi Richard F Address
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.