GARDEN OF TORAH: True Strength (Matot)
Tammuz 19, 5774 · July 17, 2014
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVIII, p. 378ff;
Vol.XXIII, p. 206ff;
Sefer HaSichos 5748, p. 554ff;
Sefer HaSichos 5751, p. 709ff;
Sichos Shabbos Matos-Masei, 5742
An Approach-Avoidance Conflict
The character traits of strength and firmness evoke mixed responses. On one hand, everyone admires personal fortitude, and respects an individual who has the courage to persevere in his convictions despite challenges. And yet a strong person can also be thought of as rigid and insensitive, clinging stubbornly to his own views without bending in consideration of others. Counseling against this tendency, our Sages commented,1 “A person should always be pliant like a reed, and not hard like a cedar.”
Although the image of personal strength projected by popular society sometimes muddles the distinctions between these two types of firmness, a discerning person should not become confused. The hardness of insensitivity reflects an inability to respond to the cues of life. Positive inner strength, by contrast, allows for an active response to those cues, but this response is determined, not by the pressures of one’s environment, but by the depth of one’s convictions.
Flexibility vs. Unfailing Firmness
These concepts are reflected in the name of this week’s Torah reading: Matos. The singular form, mateh, literally means “staff.” This term is also used to refer to the tribes of the Jewish people, because the leader of each tribe was distinguished by his staff of leadership.2 For similar reasons, the word shevet, literally, meaning “rod,” is also used as a synonym for “tribe.”
What is the difference between these two terms? A rod is supple, able to be bent, while a staff is firm and unyielding. For a rod is freshly cut or still connected to the tree from which it grew and is therefore pliant. A staff, by contrast, has been detached from its tree long ago, and over time has become dry, hard, and firm.
Both terms serve as analogies for different levels in the expression of our souls’ potential.3 The term “rod” refers to the soul as it exists in the spiritual realms, where its connection to G-dliness is palpably appreciated. It shares an active bond with the lifegiving, spiritual nurture it receives. “Staff,” by contrast, refers to the soul as it exists in our material world, enclothed in a physical body. On the conscious level, it has been severed from its spiritual source, and its connection to G-dliness is no longer felt.
In this setting, there is the possibility for both the positive and the negative types of strength and hardness. There is a tendency towards spiritual insensitivity, a brittle lack of responsiveness to the G-dliness invested within creation. On the other hand, it is also within our material world that the strength of a person’s resolve is revealed. For to observe the Torah and its mitzvos despite the challenges of our environment requires the steadfast resolution that stems from an inner awareness of the truth of one’s mission.
Moreover, when a person makes such a commitment, he is granted more strength than he personally possesses; the essence of the soul’s power will express itself through his efforts. This reflects a deeper spiritual source than the level of soul revealed in the spiritual worlds. For in the spiritual realms, the soul’s powers of perception are of primary importance. The essence, the very core of the soul, however, transcends all perception, for it is an actual part of G-d,4 a spiritual potential that cannot be contained even within the more subtle restraints of spiritual existence. It is this essential potential which provides powerful resources of strength to the soul as it is enclothed in the body, enabling it to persevere in its Divine service.5
This reflects the uniqueness of our world “the garden”6 which grows the “trees” from which these “staffs” are cut. Although the material setting causes the soul to feel separate from its source, this challenge evokes the expression of our deepest spiritual potentials. This in turn endows a person with the strength of a king the ability to master his environment and shape it according to the Torah’s desires.
The concept of strength is also reflected in the content of this Torah reading, which begins with laws regarding vows. Here we see the power possessed by every Jew. Each member of our people even a youth who has not yet reached the age of Bar Mitzvah has the ability to invest the entities of our material world with holiness, endowing them with the sanctity of the sacrifices offered in the Beis HaMikdash.
And these laws apply not only in the era of the Beis HaMikdash, but even during our present exile.
The Torah reading continues, describing the war against Midian, which as explained in Chassidic thought, serves as an analogy for our efforts to nullify the forces of strife and discord. By spreading unbounded love, we have the power to wipe out these traits,7 as the war against Midian caused the utter annihilation of that nation.
A Twofold Message
Parshas Matos is often read together with Parshas Masei. Masei means “journeys.” This Torah reading describes the journeys of the Jewish people through the des ert an analogy for the journey of souls from the spiritual realm to our material world.
More particularly, the two dimensions of the descent that the hardness of a matehreflects are also emphasized in Parshas Masei. The negative dimension the lack of a revealed connection to one’s G-dly core is implied by the name “journeys,” for the descent of the soul to this material world is indeed drastic.
The positive dimension the powerful manifestation of the soul’s essence is also alluded to by the name Masei. For it is through its descent into this material realm that the soul acquires the potential for an unparalleled upward movement. For the connection between the essence of the soul and the essence of G-d achieved in this world lifts the soul to a far higher rung than that on which it existed previously.
Moreover, when Parshas Matos is read together with Parshas Masei, the Shabbos is called Shabbos Chazak “the Shabbos of reinforcement,” because of the custom8 of declaring, Chazak, Chazak, Venischazaik (“Be strong, be strong, and may you be strengthened”) at the conclusion of the Torah reading, in acknowledgment of the completion of the Book of Numbers. This couples the strength of Parshas Matos with the strength achieved by the Jewish people through their completion of one of the books of the Chumash.
Strength in Exile, the UltimateStrength in Redemption
Parshas Matos is always read during Bein HaMetzarim the three weeks between the fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the fast of Tishah BeAv (the Ninth of Av), which are associated with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Beis HaMikdash. This recalls the negative qualities of a staff’s firmness, the severed connection to the source of vitality.9
On the other hand, this period is also connected with our people’s hopes of Redemption.10 Indeed, Tishah BeAv, the anniversary of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash is described as “the birthday of Mashiach”11 a day which generates a new impetus for the coming of the Redemption. Herein lies a connection to a staff’s positive quality of firmness, because: a) in the Era of the Redemption, our people will reap the fruit of their determined resolution to carry out G-d’s will despite the challenges of Exile; and b) it is in the Era of the Redemption that G-d’s essence, the ultimate source of strength, will become manifest in our world, His dwelling.
CHASSIDIC DIMENSION: Two Tribes and Half of One (Matot)
Tammuz 19, 5774 · July 17, 2014
Two Tribes and Half of One
The Torah portion Matos relates1 how the tribes of Gad and Reuven asked Moshe to grant them their portion of land, not in Eretz Yisrael proper, but on the other side of the Jordan. They requested this since they had many herds and the land on the other side of the Jordan was ideal for grazing.
Moshe was at first extremely displeased with their request. Only after they promised to first lead the Jews into Eretz Yisrael did Moshe agree. The verse goes on to say:2 “And Moshe gave to the children of Gad and Reuven, and to half the tribe of Menashe, son of Yosef, the kingdom of Sichon.”
But how does half the tribe of Menashe get into the act? During the give-and-take between Moshe, Gad and Reuven, not once is it mentioned that half the tribe of Menashe also wanted a portion on the other side of the Jordan!
Our Sages state3 that the half-tribe of Menashe did not choose the other side of the Jordan on its own, but rather that Moshe presented it to them.
This, too, must be understood. How is it that Moshe, who originally found the request by Gad and Reuven so repulsive, should then ask half the tribe of Menashe to join the others beyond the Jordan?
Evidently, there is a major difference between Gad and Reuven and half the tribe of Menashe; for Gad and Reuven it was considered a fault, while for half the tribe of Menashe, it was considered a meritorious deed.
Wherein lies the difference?
The Torah goes on to relate4 that G-d eventually showed Moshe the “entire land”ofEretz Yisrael. Clearly, this was not just for sightseeing; Moshe’s gaze brought with it a degree of sanctification.5 Thus the Gemara states:6 “All places that G-d showed Moshe must be tithed.”
Why was it necessary for Moshe to see the entire land, and thereby effectuate sanctification?
All the essential things relating to the Jewish people were accomplished by Moshe. Thus it was that Moshe received the entire Torah and then transmitted it.7 And Moshe is inexorably bound up with the nation’s redemption — not only from the first exile, but from the last exile as well. This is in accord with the saying of our Sages:8 “Moshe is both the first and the final redeemer.”
Since the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael is a crucial aspect in the life of the Jewish people,9 it follows that this too had to be connected in some way with Moshe. Therefore, although Moshe did not actually enter the land, it was necessary that he at least sanctify it by seeing it.
With regard to the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael, we learn that in times to come, its boundaries shall be broadened. Since all crucial matters “pass through” Moshe, it follows that the broadened boundaries also had to be connected with him in some way.
This is why Moshe gave half the tribe of Menashe a portion on the other side of the Jordan, for this represents a broadening of the boundaries.
Herein lies the main difference between the inheritance of Gad and Reuven and the inheritance of Menashe:
The acquisition of land on the other side of the Jordan by the tribes of Gad and Reuven came about a) as a result of their own request; b) as a result of monetary considerations, and c) with the stipulation that they forego their portion of Eretz Yisrael.
In contrast, half the tribe of Menashe a) received its portion through Moshe; b) retained a portion in Eretz Yisrael proper, and most importantly, c) this “extra-territorial” portion served as a forerunner of the broadened boundaries in times to come.
This also explains why Moshe chose the tribe of Menashe, for as related in the previous portion of Pinchas with regard to the daughters of Tzelafchad, it was that tribe which demonstrated passionate love for Eretz Yisrael.
Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXVIII, pp. 210-215
FOR FRIDAY NIGHT:Balancing the Spiritual and the Practical (Matot)
Tammuz 19, 5774 · July 17, 2014
Balancing the Spiritual and the Practical
A constant theme in Jewish teaching is the interface between spirituality and life, between idealistic dreams and harsh reality. The clash between these two dimensions, and the attempt to find a resolution of the problem, is expressed in an incident in the Torah reading of Matot (Numbers 30:2 – 32:42).
After forty years wandering in the desert, the Jewish people were camped on the eastern bank of the Jordan. Soon they will cross the Jordan and conquer the Land of Israel. Now a group of two Tribes (Reuben and Gad) approached Moses and made a request. “We have flocks of sheep,” they said. “The area where we are on the east of the Jordan is good sheep country. Let us stay here instead of crossing the Jordan.”
Moses’ reaction was extreme concern. He saw this as a replay of the argument withthe Spies some forty years previously, when the people claimed that it would be better not to enter the Land. The request to remain east of the Jordan seemed similar. However, after a discussion with the two tribes, Moses agreed. As long as they helped the rest of the Jewish people to conquer the area West of the Jordan, everything would be fine.
What is happening here? What are the real issues?
Chassidic commentaries explain that the generation of the Spies did not want to enter the Land because they preferred the spirituality of the desert. There they could feel close to G-d. They did not have to work for their livelihood: the manna from heaven and the water from the rock supplied their physical needs. Going into the Land would mean plowing and reaping, and all the humdrum activities of daily life. So they preferred to remain in the desert. This overbalancing in favor of the purely spiritual was condemned by G-d.
When tribes of Reuben and Gad asked to be able to stay on the east bank of the Jordan where they could graze their sheep, it seemed to be the same kind of claim. The Sages tell us the reason why many of our ancestors (including the Patriarchs and the sons of Jacob) were sheep farmers is because this activity enabled them to maintain a spiritual frame of mind, far from the hurly burly of the city.
At first Moses was upset by this request. It was another case of rejection of the reality of life. Yet then he came to terms with it. Why?
The generation of the Spies wanted the entire Jewish people to remain in a spiritual world. By contrast, the two tribes were a minority. Further, they agreed that they would cross the Jordan in order to help the rest of the Jewish people conquer the Land. This means they accepted that their spirituality was for the benefit of others. Moses was then able to approve their plan.
In our own time, there are people who are primarily active in the world of commerce and the professions, while there are others who devote themselves to the spiritual dimension of life, and studying Torah is their prime activity. The presence of these two groups, those active in the practical world and the scholars, is a time-honored feature of the Jewish community. (In general society, too, there are many full time academic scholars).
Sometimes the question is raised whether the Torah scholar is, in some sense, “escaping” from the real world. The lesson of the Parshah is that if the scholars see that their true purpose is fulfilled by helping others, by communicating Torah knowledge and inspiration to them, then they are not escapists at all. Instead they are helping to combine the spiritual and the practical, to make the reality of this world into a true dwelling for the Divine.1
ONCE UPON A CHASID: The 3 a.m. Audience (Matot)
Tammuz 19, 5774 · July 17, 2014
The 3 a.m. Audience
You shall be clean before G-d, and before Israel (32:22)
Rabbi Z.M. Steinmetz (Hebrew poet Zvi Yair) told:
A family crisis had arisen in the home of one of my relatives, a not-so-distant cousin who lived in South America. Their daughter had met and fallen in love with a young man and the two wished to marry. But the young woman’s parents were vehemently opposed to the match since the young man came from a non-religious background and did not lead a Torah-observant life. Although the young man declared his willingness to begin to observe the laws and customs of Torah, the entire family, extended family, and circle of friends were united against the young woman’s choice.
The young woman grew increasingly bitter over the fact that all those dear to her had closed ranks against her. She felt that her entire world had conspired to deprive her of her happiness. The situation continued to worsen, as both daughter and parents became more and more enraged over the betrayal by the other. Finally, they struck a deal: the case would be brought to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory. Although the family did not count themselves among the Rebbe’s chassidim, both the young woman and her parents the Rebbe in high regard and felt they could trust him. Both parties agreed to do as he advised. As the ‘Lubavitcher’ in the family, I was asked to accompany the young woman to her audience with the Rebbe.
In those years, the Rebbe would receive people three nights a week, beginning in the late evening and continuing through the night. Often, the final visitor would depart at dawn.
We entered the Rebbe’s room close to 3 a.m. First, the Rebbe and the young woman conducted a brief search for a common language: they tried Yiddish, Hebrew, English, and French, and finally settled on German. As the young woman told her story, I could hear the frustration in her voice: “I don’t understand what they want of me,” she said. “My friend has promised to lead a Torah-true life. I know that he is sincere. Why is everyone so set against us?”
“He may be sincere,” said the Rebbe, “but of what value is his declaration if he does not know what he is committing himself to? You know, according to the law, signed blank check is worthless, even if the holder fills it in for a single cent – one cannot legally obligate oneself without knowing what the obligation consists of. Living one’s life in accordance with the Torah’s precepts is a most demanding challenge for anyone, but it is even more difficult for someone who has not been raised this way.”
“But he is willing to learn,” said the young woman.
“Learning alone is not enough,” replied the Rebbe. “One may study and accept Torah with the best of intentions, but applying it to day-to-day life is quite another matter. This is what I suggest: let your friend live with a Torah-observant family for several months. Let him study, but let him also experience firsthand what such a commitment entails on a day in, day out basis, from the Modeh Ani prayer upon opening one’s eyes in the morning to the reading of the Sh’mah before going to sleep. If he still declares his desire to lead a Torah-true life, I give my wholehearted blessing to your life together.”
The young woman left the Rebbe’s room with a lightened and joyful heart, and I remained to discuss several personal matters with the Rebbe. But the Rebbe immediately told me to call her back in, explaining: “I do not want her to think that we are discussing her behind her back.”
It was three o’clock in the morning, and the Rebbe had seen dozens of people in the course of the night. Yet he was sufficiently attuned to her feelings to discern her sense of alienation and abandonment and to pick up on her notion of a ‘conspiracy’ against her. So although the issue had been resolved to her satisfaction, and although she would not, in any case, understand the Yiddish in which we spoke, he refused to talk to me without her being present in the room.
PARSHAH IN A NUTSHELL: Matot
Tammuz 18, 5774 · July 16, 2014
Moses conveys the laws governing theannulment of vows to the heads of the tribes of Israel.
War is waged against Midian for their role in plotting the moral destruction of Israel, and the Torah gives a detailed account of the war spoils and how they were allocated amongst the people, the warriors, the Levites and the High Priest.
The tribes of Reuben and Gad (later joined by half of the tribe of Menasseh) ask for the lands east of the Jordan as their portion in the Promised Land, these being prime pastureland for their cattle. Moses is initially angered by the request, but subsequently agrees on the condition that they first join, and lead, in Israel’s conquest of the lands west of the Jordan.
ETHICS OF OUR FATHERS: Double Standard (Chapter 1)
Tammuz 18, 5774 * July 16, 2014
E T H I C S O F O U R F A T H E R S
Judge every man to the side of merit
– Ethics of our Fathers, 1:6
On the most elementary level, this means that if you discern a negative trait in your fellow or you see him commit a negative act, do not judge him guilty in your heart. “Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place,” warns another of the Ethics’ sayings, and his place is one place where you will never be. You have no way of truly appreciating the manner in which his inborn nature, his background or the circumstances that hold sway over his life have influenced his character and behavior.
However, this only explains why you should not judge your fellow guilty. Yet our Mishnah goes further than this, enjoining us to “judge every man to the side of merit.” This implies that we should see our fellow’s deficiencies in a positive light. But what positive element is implied by a person’s shortcomings and misdeeds?
An explanation may be found in another Talmudic saying: “Whoever is greater than his fellow, his inclination (for evil) is also greater.” – a rule crucial to our understanding of a fundamental principle of Torah, man’s possession of “free choice” regarding his actions.
Indeed, how can we consider a person’s choices to be free and uncoerced, when there is so much inequality in life? Can we compare the moral performance of an individual whose character was shaped by a loving family, a stable environment and a top-notch education with that of one who has experienced only rootlessness, violence and despair? Can we compare a person who has naturally and effortlessly been blessed with a superior mind and a compassionate heart to one who has no so been privileged? Are their choices equally “free”? Are they equally accountable for their actions?
The answer to the last two questions is “Yes.” Certainly, no two human beings are alike. Each has been given a life that is unique to him alone, with his own individual array of challenges and tests on the one hand, and potentials and opportunities on the other. Free choice means that the Creator, who has created each individual and the circumstances of his life, has also fortified him with whatever resources are required for him to face his every moral challenge.
To repeat, “Whoever is greater than his fellow, his inclination for evil is also greater.” One who has been advantaged with superior talents and qualities must struggle against an inclination towards corruption and evil far more powerful than that which faces the more “average” individual. Conversely, one who has been subjected to a greater measure of setbacks and trials in his life, has been granted an equally greater measure of fortitude and achievement potential.
So if your fellow has committed a crime so despicable that you are incapable of even contemplating such a deed; if he is plagued by demons so horrendous that you can hardly envision such evil – know that he is undoubtedly in possession of a potential for good that far exceeds your own. Understand that while he has succumbed to forces far more powerful than anything which you will ever face, he is an invaluable human being, one whose inner resources, if cultivated, could translate into attainments unimaginable by one less evilly inclined.
In other words, look not to what he is but to what he can be. Dwell not on the way in which he has negatively expressed his potential, but on what this potential truly consists of.
A Single Exception
So judge every man to the side of merit—every man, that is, except yourself. For the attitude detailed above, while appropriate to adopt towards other human beings, would be nothing less than disastrous if applied to oneself.
“True, I have done nothing with my life,” the potential-looking individual will argue. “But look at what I am capable of! Look at the quality of my mind, the sensitivity of my feelings, the tremendous talents I possess. It’s all there within me, regardless of the fact that I have never bothered to realize any of it. This is the real me. The extent to which I actualize it is only of secondary importance.”
In our judgement of human life and achievement, we must adapt a double standard. Our assessment of a fellow human being must always look beyond the actual to the potential reality within. On the other hand, we must measure our own worth in terms of our real and concrete achievements, and view the potential in ourselves as merely the means to this end.
* * *
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch told:
When I was four years old, I asked my father: “Why did G-d make people with two eyes? Why not with one eye, just as we have been given a single nose and a single mouth?”
Said father: “There are times when one must look with a right eye, with affection and empathy, and times when one must look with a left eye, severely and critically. On one’s fellow man, one should look with a right eye; on oneself, one should look with a left eye.”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Introductory reading to Ethics of the Fathers:
All Israel has a share in the World to Come, as is stated: “And your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever. They are the shoot of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I take pride.” (Sanhedrin, 11:1)
1. Moses received the Torah from [G-d at] Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.
2. Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the Great assembly. He would say: The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of G-d, and deeds of kindness.
3. Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you.
4. Yossei the son of Yoezer of Tzreidah, and Yossei the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem, received the tradition from them. Yossei the son of Yoezer of Tzreidah would say: Let your home be a meeting place for the sages; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words.
5. Yossei the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem would say: Let your home be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household. And do not engage in excessive conversation with a woman. This is said even regarding one’s own wife—how much more so regarding the wife of another. Hence, the sages said: One who excessively converses with a woman causes evil to himself, neglects the study of Torah, and, in the end, inherits purgatory.
6. Joshua the son of Perachia and Nitai the Arbelite received from them. Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Assume for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every man to the side of merit.
7. Nitai the Arbelite would say: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor, do not cleave to a wicked person, and do not abandon belief in retribution.
8. Judah the son of Tabbai and Shimon the son of Shotach received from them. Judah the son of Tabbai would say: When sitting in judgement, do not act as a counselor-at-law. When the litigants stand before you, consider them both guilty; and when they leave your courtroom, having accepted the judgement, regard them as equally righteous.
9. Shimon the son of Shotach would say: Increasingly cross-examine the witnesses. Be careful with your words, lest they learn from them how to lie.
10. Shmaayah and Avtalyon received from them. Shmaayah would say: Love work, loath mastery, and avoid intimacy with the government.
11. Avtalyon would say: Scholars, be careful with your words. For you may be exiled to a place inhabited by evil elements [who will distort your words to suit their negative purposes]. The disciples who come after you will then drink of these evil waters and be destroyed, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.
12. Hillel and Shammai received from them. Hillel would say: Be of the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah.
13. He would also say: One who advances his name, destroys his name. One who does not increase, diminishes. One who does not learn is deserving of death. And one who make personal use of the crown of Torah shall perish.
14. He would also say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
15. Shammai would say: Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance.
16. Rabban Gamliel would say: Assume for yourself a master; stay away from doubt; and do not accustom yourself to tithe by estimation.
17. His son, Shimon, would say: All my life I have been raised among the wise, and I have found nothing better for the body than silence. The essential thing is not study, but deed. And one who speaks excessively brings on sin.
18. Rabbi Shimon the son of Gamliel would say: On three things the world endures: law, truth and peace. As is stated, “Truth, and a judgement of peace, you should administer at your [city] gates.”
Studied at the conclusion of each lesson of the Ethics:
Rabbi Chananiah the son of Akashiah would say: G-d desired to merit the people of Israel; therefore, He gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance. As is stated, “G-d desired, for sake of his righteousness, that Torah be magnified and made glorious.” (Makot, 3:16)
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TORAH STUDIES: Parshat Matot
Tammuz 18, 5774 · July 16, 2014
In the opening verses of our Sidra we encounter the laws of making and annulling a vow. And whereas a person cannot release himself from his pledges, in certain cases, others can do it for him. In particular, a father can release his daughter (if she has not reached the age of maturity) or a husband his wife, from their vows. There is a further intermediate case, which is something of a combination of these two; a girl who is as yet only betrothed, can be released from a pledge by the combined veto of her father and her husband-to-be. Indeed, their conjoint power is retroactive—it applies even to vows made before betrothal. The Rebbe develops the contrast between marriage and betrothal and applies it to the relationship between the Jew and G-d. And it asks the important question: How is it that betrothal confers even greater rights on a man than marriage itself?
1. Making and Unmaking a Vow
The Sidra of Mattot opens with an account of the laws of making a vow, and of having it annulled. There are three ways in which annulment can take place: (1) by a recognized sage (a chacham) who has the power retroactively to release a person from a pledge he has undertaken, (2) by the father of a girl who has made a vow while still under his guardianship; and (3) by a husband who can veto the wow of his wife. The powers of a father and a husband are not retroactive—i.e., they only annul the obligation to fulfill the vow from the present onwards.
In the times when the two distinct stages to a Jewish marriage, betrothal (kiddushin) and marriage proper (nissuin), took place at two different times, there were two corresponding degrees of power of the husband over his wife’s pledges. We would naturally assume that this power would be greater after marriage than during betrothal. But in one respect this is not so. For a man has the power—during betrothal but not after it—to annul the vows his wife made when she was single.1
How is it that betrothal grants the husband greater power over his wife’s commitments than marriage itself?
One explanation is based on the fact that he does not have this right in himself but only in conjunction with the father of the girl.2 Acting together, her father and her betrothed can annul her vows. So that the father, as it were, communicates his authority over the girl while she is single, to her husband to be. On the other hand, a husband has, in and by himself the right of veto and thus he borrows no powers from her father. His right therefore does not extend back to the period when she was single, and not as yet bound to him.
2. Betrothal and Marriage to G-d
This fact of halacha has a bearing on our religious life. There are two ways a Jew can bind himself to G-d: In betrothal and in marriage.
When a man is betrothed to a girl, she becomes forbidden to any other man. Thus, when a Jew is “betrothed” to G-d he has taken a decisive commitment. He has decided to let nothing else waylay and capture his devotion. He has set himself aside from all but G-d’s will. This in itself is a momentous act, but it is a negative one. He has not yet reached the spiritual equivalent of marriage, the state where he “shall cleave… and be one flesh”3 with his partner. And as the fruit of marriage is children—children who reflect their parents so—the fruit of a total oneness with G-d is good deeds which express both the will of G-d and the self-effacement of man. “What are the offspring of the righteous? Their good deeds.”4
3. The Sense of Incompleteness
Although the state of spiritual “marriage” goes far beyond “betrothal,” betrothal has its own unique virtue.
The man who has reached the level of marriage may fall prey to a certain kind of pride. He may feel that he has reached perfect righteousness, that he is now the “master of the house” with the right in himself to “annul vows.” Unlike the betrothed man—he may reason—his power does not need the co-operation of the father.
That this is a fatal error can be seen from the case of Bar Kochba,5 whose attitude proved to the Rabbis that he was not in fact entitled to the name Bar Kochba (literally, “the son of a star,” a Messianic title derived from the verse, “There come a star out of Jacob”), but was instead Bar Koziba (“the son of lies”).
The strength of betrothal lies in the fact that the betrothed knows that he has (halachic) powers only in conjunction with the father. He has no rights in himself. Spiritually, this means that he knows that all his capacities are dependent on G-d. And, acting together with Him, he can reach heights that he alone could not aspire to. He can arrive at the power of “annulment,” namely, nullifying in himself and the world, the masks of illusion that hide G-d’s presence from man. And this power is “retroactive,” that is, beyond the normal limitations of time and space. Just as a vow binds, and an annulment breaks the bond, so he, with the help of G-d, releases the world from its bondage, from falsehood, finitude and the concealment of G-d.
4. The Strength of Conjunction
The implication is this: However far a man travels on his spiritual journey, even if he “marries” himself completely to G-d, he must never forget that by his own power he can achieve nothing. He must unite himself with what is higher than himself. There is no room in the religious life for complacency. However high he has risen, there is always something higher to cling to and reach out towards. He is as yet incomplete, as yet only the betrothed. But together with G-d—the father—it is within his power to annul—the bondage of the world in a way that knows no limits.
(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. II pp. 612-614)
WEEKLY ALIYOT: Parshat Matot
Matot Aliya Summary
General Overview: This week’s Torah reading, Matot, begins with the laws of oaths. The Israelites wage battle against Midian and the spoils are divided and tithed. The tribes of Reuben and Gad request and receive territory outside the mainland of Israel.
First Aliyah: This section discusses the laws of verbal vows. A person who obligates him or herself with a vow is required to fulfill the vow. Under certain circumstances, a husband or father can annul vows made by his wife and daughter.
Second Aliyah: The Israelites are commanded to exact revenge from the Midianites for their part in seducing Jewish men to sin (described in the end of the Torah reading of Balak, Numbers 25). A 12,000-strong army of Israelites, led by Phinehas, waged battle against Midian. All adult Midianite males were killed, along with Balaam and Midian’s five kings. The women, children, and battle spoils are brought back to the Israelite encampment.
Third Aliyah: Moses is enraged that the Midianite females were spared. “They were the primary culprits; the ones who seduced the Israelites and brought about the plague which killed so many!” Moses exclaimed. All the males and all women who possibly could have been involved in the campaign of seduction were killed. The soldiers are then instructed how to purify themselves from the ritual impurity they contracted from contact with corpses in the course of battle. They are also told how to kosher the food utensils which were among the spoils.
Fourth Aliyah: The spoils of the war were evenly divided between the soldiers and the greater community. From the portion of the spoils given to the soldiers, a tithe of 1/500 was given to Elazar the High Priest.
Fifth Aliyah: From the other portion of the spoils, the half divided amongst the rest of the Israelites, 1/50 was given to the Levites. The army officers count the soldiers who returned from battle, and determine that not a single man was lost in the war. To show gratitude to G‑d for this miracle, the officers donate to the Tabernacle all the gold jewelry which they personally plundered from the Midianites.
Sixth Aliyah: The tribes of Reuben and Gad owned lots of cattle. Seeing that the eastern bank of the Jordan — the lands of Sichon and Og which they had just conquered — had abundant pasture, they asked Moses if they could remain and settle on the eastern bank. Moses angrily responds that they are following in the footsteps of the spies who were fearful of the Canaanites, did not want to enter the land of Israel, and discouraged the entire nation from doing so. The Reubenites and Gaddites respond that they will leave their cattle and families behind in fortified cities, and all their men will proceed into Israel with their brethren and lead them in the conquest of the land. Only after all the land has been conquered and settled would they return to the other side of the Jordan.
Seventh Aliyah: Moses accepts the offer of the Reubenites and Gaddites, and informs Joshua and Elazar the High Priest of the agreement. These two tribes, along with half of the tribe of Manasseh settle on the eastern bank of the Jordan, and conquer many of the areas wherein they encountered opposition.
PARENTING: Calm Down Right Now!
Did you ever notice how contagious hysteria is? For instance, did you ever walk into a room where your children were in the midst of roughhousing, and feel immediately and intensely agitated? And, if so, what did you do at that moment? Did you, like most parents, start screaming at your kids to calm down? It’s kind of funny how we do that—especially considering how much that technique doesn’twork.
Heart Rate Variability
In case you’re wondering why we scream at upset children, there is a scientific explanation for it. Our hearts produce an electromagnetic field in and around our bodies that extends out into the room (and probably, although we don’t have the equipment yet to measure it, into the universe). The changes in the heart rate from beat to beat produce a measure called heart rate variability (HRV), which both reflects and
|Did you ever notice how contagious hysteria is?
induces an emotional state. A calm, loving, appreciative emotional state produces a harmonious HRV pattern, while an agitated, angry, frightened or otherwise negative emotional state produces a chaotic, choppy pattern. Whatever pattern is being produced is literally contagious, affecting the HRV of other people in the room through a process called entrainment. When you are sitting in a room with a very tense person—whether or not that person is saying a word—you may start to feel tense as well, as your heart entrains (synchronizes) to theirs.
Likewise, when you walk into a room with emotionally charged, upset children, your own heart gets immediately dysregulated, and you start to feel as if you are in a threatening, dangerous, awful emergency—when in fact you’re just in your playroom at home with your kids. Nothing terrible, awful or horrendous is going on; it’s just the usual squabble over a toy. The world is not about to collapse. There is no urgent need for everyone to calm down (unless one child has a knife in his hand). And, in fact, due to the rush of adrenalin in each child’s bloodstream, immediately calming down is not an option—it just isn’t physically possible. You are the only one in the room who can be calm at that moment—if you know how to utilize the entrainment process for your own purposes.
Get Them to Entrain to You
So, here’s the secret: When you hear a blood-curdling scream, followed by threats and more screams, and you know that this is the sound of your children “playing” as they normally do, take a moment to stabilize your heart rate variability pattern by purposely breathing a little slower for a minute or so. Then get up and walk—don’t run—calmly to where your children are and gently, slowly and quietly ask, “Hey, guys, what’s happening here?” Continue to breathe slowly. Stand near your kids so they can feel your calming presence and entrain to your heart rhythm. Even if they continue to escalate for a while, just stay there without saying anything, just concentrating on
|Continue to breathe slowly
your breathing. (If someone is actually getting hurt, you can say in the same quiet and calm way, “Please move apart now, so you can tell me what happened.”) Normally, the kids will calm down quickly as their own breathing settles down, the adrenaline begins to diminish and their systems reset. You can use this same approach whenever conflict is occurring between members of your family, and enjoy the same positive results.
Wisdom of the Torah
Although we now understand the science behind the effectiveness of a calm bystander, our sages advised us centuries ago to use this approach. King Solomon taught, “The words of the wise are heard when calmly spoken.” And Nachmanides instructed, “Accustom yourself to speaking gently to all people at all times.” The ability to stay calm when confronted by chaos is a primary Torah value, one that allows us to maintain the bigger picture, to enlist our own higher self and to trigger the higher selves of those around us. With intention and practice, this skill will become “second nature,” eventually overtaking our original inclination to scream when the kids scream!
ESSAY: Broken Vows
Tammuz 17, 5774 · July 15, 2014
I am not much given to vows. Swearing off chocolate, ice cream or the Internet . . . I know myself too well. If I were to make such a promise, it would not be kept for very long. Still, my inner feminist bristles at the laws of vows described in the beginning of this week’s Parshah, Matot:
If a woman makes a vow to the L‑rd, or imposes a prohibition [upon herself] while in her father’s house, in her youth . . . if her father hinders her on the day he hears it, all her vows and her prohibitions that she has imposed upon herself shall not stand . . .
But if she vowed in her husband’s house, or imposed a prohibition upon herself with an oath . . . if her husband revokes them on the day he hears them, anything issuing from her lips regarding her vows or self-imposed prohibitions shall not stand; her husband has revoked them, and the L‑rd shall forgive her.
Any vow or any binding oath of self-affliction, her husband can either uphold it or revoke it.1
Any vow I make has to be validated by my husband first? I need his permission? Am I not an adult, capable of making my own promises and carrying them out?
But before getting worked up, it pays to read the fine print. First, let’s examine the father’s role in absolving his daughter’s vow. To whom does this apply? The term the Torah uses is bineureha—“in her youth.” Rashi explains that the verse does not refer to a minor child, since her vows are not binding at all, nor to an adult single woman, because she is responsible for her own oaths. So there is only a small window when a father can repeal his daughter’s vows—when she is between the ages of 11 and 12. A single woman older than 12, a widow or a divorcee is liable for her own vows.
What about a husband nullifying his wife’s vow? Here, again, there are caveats.
|What about a husband nullifying his wife’s vow?
The type of vow that a husband can override is “an oath of self-affliction”—a vow that restricts food, drink, sleep or other physical needs, or a vow that impacts their relationship. But if a wife should pledge a large sum of her money to charity, for example, she is on her own. And the husband can nullify the vow only the day he hears it. If he waits until evening without speaking up, the vow stands.
Still, even if the husband’s powers over his wife are not as sweeping as a superficial reading would suggest, there’s an asymmetry here that’s unsettling: a man can overrule his wife’s vow; a wife does not have the power to overrule her husband’s vows.
What’s interesting to me is that the power of nullification given to men is within the context of a relationship. A single adult woman makes or breaks her own vow, while a husband can override his wife’s vow, and a father his daughter’s vow—but only in her youth, while she’s under his guardianship. This leads me to believe that the Torah is not making a statement here about a woman’s ability to be independent and to think for herself. Rather, the take-home message here has something to do with the bond between father and daughter, husband and wife.
While all of Torah is meant to be understood on a literal level, each passage also has an eternal message on a more abstract, psycho-spiritual level. Chassidic teachings explain that all of us have a blend of masculine and feminine traits. There is a part within us that makes vows, and a part that can overrule vows. According to chassidic teachings, these two parts correspond to the two intellectual attributes of binah, which is feminine, and chochmah, which is masculine.
There are many chassidic texts that explore the attributes of chochmah andbinah and the relationship between them. To distill in brief, chochmah is an idea and binah is its development; chochmah is the big picture and binah is the details. Chochmah is abstract and somewhat detached from the world, whilebinah is more invested in this world.
Since binah is predominant in women, a woman may, for example, expend great effort not only in cooking a marvelous dish, but also in presenting it and serving it. A man may be perfectly happy just to eat a warm meal. A woman may fuss over bedding sets and matching curtains, while a man is satisfied to sleep on any flat surface.
This is not to say that all women are detail-obsessed and all men are oblivious Neanderthals. As mentioned, all of us have both masculine and feminine energies. Some men have a feminine side that is more strongly expressed, and vice versa.
So, what does this have to do with vows? A woman who is consumed with the myriad details of running a home may become concerned that she is too frivolous, that she is wasting her time on useless activities, and thus may decide to pull back. So she takes vows upon herself to “afflict her soul.” Why read a dozen cookbooks to put together a spectacular holiday menu? Perhaps I should read a book of Psalms instead. Am I fretting too much about my clothing and appearance? Maybe I should stop buying new clothes for a while.
And the attribute of chochmah, as represented by the husband or father, says no.
|Putting energy into worldly matters is not a bad thing
You are doing just fine. Putting energy into worldly matters is not a bad thing. In fact, G‑d placed us here in this world for a reason. He didn’t have to create a physical world at all. But He did, and He wants us to invest ourselves in it, develop it and beautify it into a place that He can call home. He doesn’t want us to pull back and become ascetics. So, please, don’t stop trying to make your home into a place of beauty, your table into a feast for the eyes. We need to work together, chochmah andbinah, masculine and feminine.
This is why the absolution of vows takes place only within the context of a relationship. The bond between father and daughter, or husband and wife, guarantees that there is a balance of energies. We need the masculine traits of objectivity and broad perspective, chochmah, to ensure that our mundane activities are neither neglected nor over-elaborate. Then the womanly art of binahcan truly flourish, and whatever we do to beautify our homes or ourselves will serve a higher purpose. The male steps in not to suppress the female, but on the contrary—to elevate and dignify her, to make certain that she herself appreciates what she is bringing to the table.
And through the bond between chochmah and binah, we draw down the highest divine energy into our midst, and make our home and our world into a true dirah, a palace where G‑d can dwell.
(Based on an address of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbat Parshat Matot-Massei 5722 , published in Likkutei Sichot, vol. 4, pp. 1076ff.)
WEEKLY STORY: The Fox and the Fishes
The Fox and the Fishes
Tammuz 16, 5774 · July 14, 2014
Talmud, Berachot 61b
Once, the wicked government [of Rome] decreed that the Jewish people were forbidden to study Torah. Pappus ben Judah saw Rabbi Akiva convening gatherings in public and studying Torah [with them]. Said he to him: “Akiva, are you not afraid of the government?”
Said [Rabbi Akiva] to him: “I’ll give you a parable.
“A fox was walking along a river and saw fish rushing to and fro. Said he to them: ‘What are you fleeing?’
“Said they to him: ‘The nets that the humans spread for us.’
“Said he to them: ‘Why don’t you come out onto the dry land? We’ll live together, as my ancestors lived with your ancestors.’
“Said they to him: ‘Are you the one of whom it is said that you are the wisest of animals? You’re not wise, but foolish! If, in our environment of life we have cause for fear, how much more so in the environment of our death!’
“The same applies to us. If now, when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is said (Deuteronomy 30:20), ‘For it is your life and the lengthening of your days,’ such is our situation, how much more so if we neglect it . .
COMMENT: Petty Theft
You would never steal a towel or bathrobe from a friend’s house, so why are you so tempted every time you check out of a hotel?
You’d never borrow money and then falsely claim to have returned it, so why do so many people economize with the truth when filling out their tax returns?
When shopping at the local corner store, you scrupulously pay for everything in your basket and return the extra change you were given by mistake, but when negotiating on the phone with the call center of a multinational corporation, you sometimes stretch the truth and present a totally skewed perspective on the issues.
It’s not honesty that keeps you from theft; it’s empathy. When dealing with an individual you can see the direct impact of your actions, while lying to the government or ripping off a conglomerate feels like a victimless crime. The supermarket chain will never miss that grape you just popped in your mouth, and how can you trust the government to spend your tax dollars wisely? They’ll never miss what they don’t know.
But you know the truth. To steal one cent is as immoral as stealing a million dollars. It is as wrong to take something from the government as it is to take it from a neighbor. Morality is not relative; it just feels that way sometimes.
And this might explain a seeming redundancy in this week’s Parshah. The Jews were commanded to go to war against the nation of Midian. One thousand men of each tribe were drafted, and enjoyed a miraculous victory in battle. They captured tremendous treasures of booty from their victorious campaign. The Torah then goes into extreme detail to describe how these spoils were distributed amongst the warriors, the kohanim, the Levites and the rest of Israel. Not only does it enumerate the value of the gold and the exact number of sheep, cows, donkeys and slaves captured, it even calculates as a percentage and then again as an final amount how many of each item were kept by the warriors and then how much was given away (Numbers 31:26–54).
It hardly seems necessary to go into such detail. Why not just tell us that the soldiers came back with a whole heap of loot, and kicked back a percentage to those they left behind? Those Midianite sheep and cows have been dead for over 3,000 years by now; why should I care exactly how many there were in the first place?
But that’s the point the Torah is making. Every single animal was counted; every gold coin and necklace was accounted for. Not one Israelite indulged in a spot of private pillage or plunder, and nobody went looking to feather his own nest.
It would have been so tempting to skim some off the top. Doesn’t G‑d help those who help themselves? It would hardly seems like theft; it’s random Midianite treasure, belonging to no one in particular, and all the original owners are dead already anyway.
And that’s why the Torah enumerates everything that came in and everything that went out: to reaffirm for all ages that when we live life according to G‑d’s rules, every cent counts. There is no such thing as a small theft, because ultimately everything belongs to G‑d.