Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Mattos-Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13) To Thine Own Self Be True

If someone who had never been exposed to Jews or Judaism encountered a Jew and asked, what’s the holiest day of the year for Jews?”Yom Kippur.””What do you do on that day?””We fast for 25 hours and spend most of that time in the synagogue praying and asking for forgiveness.””Wow, that’s incredible. How do you inaugurate the day; what’s the first thing you do?””We recite Kol Nidre, a formal declaration to annul unkept vows of the previous year.””Seriously? You begin a unique 25-hour period, the holiest day of your year, by annulling vows? It’s seems so mundane and unemotional-and even uninspiring. Please explain.”How would you answer? Before doing so, you might need to explain some things and ask a few more questions? Here goes.If a person makes a vow to G-d or makes an oath…he will not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do. (30:3) Rashi (1040-1105) explains, according to the etymology of the word, that “violate” means “profane;” a person should not profane his word. This seems to be a peculiar way to express the prohibition of violating a vow. Imagine a supervisor stressing the importance of workers keeping their commitments. She might say something like, if you don’t keep your word, you might be deemed dishonest, disingenuous, unreliable, or some other appellation we wouldn’t want said about us, but would she say “if you don’t keep your commitments, you are profane (i.e. unholy)? What life’s lesson can we learn from the peculiar “profane” wording?Before answering we need to dwell for a moment on how Judaism views vows, oaths, and other forms of verbal commitments. When a person declares, “this money is designated for tzedakah (charity), that person has actually changed the status of the money in from of him; it can no longer be used for anything other than tzedakah. When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem (we are a little more than a week away from Tisha B’Av, the day of the destruction of the First [Temple of Solomon] and Second Temples), a person could pledge anything from a cup to an animal for the Temple. As soon as the person announces his or her intention, the object becomes holy property of the Temple, and even though it is still in the person’s house, it can no longer be used for mundane day-to-day purposes. Speech has the ability to transform the status of an object. Even today, a piece of parchment has no intrinsic holiness but when a scribe designates it for a Mezuzah or Torah scroll and writes the first letter, it gets transformed into a holy object; one can no longer use it for scribbling or even a personal letter. Words have the ability to transform the mundane into holy.  When you don’t keep your commitments, you don’t just violate your word, you have profaned it. If you said you were going to meet someone at a certain time, live up to it. If you said you would give a certain amount to tzedakah, make sure it’s not an empty promise. Rashi’s explanation takes it a step further; don’t see your own words as ordinary or mundane, understand their power-and how powerful words in general are.Let’s consider marriage. One minute before the traditional marriage declaration, both bride and groom are free agents, and have the ability to date or marry anyone they choose but after uttering a few words under the chuppah, a new reality has been created. Both are now forbidden to everyone else in the world and are now “holy,” i.e. set aside, for each other and no one else.The Torah’s message (in the verse above) is that we are to be careful with the words that leave our lips. Don’t view them as being insignificant or casual because if you don’t take your words seriously, you will be nonchalant and irresponsible about being true to them. Realize that words are holy and can change reality or even have impact on the word. Words can destroy or console; build a relationship or destroy it.Our words create reality and therefore we cannot violate them by making speech mundane. When words leave your mouth, you have created something. In the 21st century, our fingertips have become extensions of our mouths. Once something leaves the screen in front of you, its imprint is eternally engraved in the cyber world. We should ask ourselves, “Is this message going to be helpful to someone? Will it build, or will it destroy?” This doesn’t mean that every conversation-face to face or in the cloud-has to have existential, theological, or philosophical ramifications, there is plenty of room for small talk too.  What is the value of small talk? It is the foundation of a relationship. If I only talk to you because there is an agenda to our conversation, then I am not interested in a relationship with you, I am interested in your help to advance my agenda. No matter how noble that agenda might be, ultimately, it’s about me and my agenda. How do you know if a relationship is real? There will be small talk. For example, if every time a child calls his or her parents, the first response is, “is everything okay,” it is an indication that the only time the child calls is for ‘something.’ When the child says, “I just called to say hello and see how things are doing,” that’s when small talk becomes a holy endeavor.Why do we begin Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei? Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik (1903-1993) answers that we should realize at the commencement of Yom Kippur that we are about to spend the next 25 hours offering words. We ask for forgiveness with words, we express regret and remorse with words, and we make commitments for the future with words. It’s not enough just to feel bad about the unfulfilled promises you made the previous year, you have to actually annul those verbal commitments. It’s a formal process that presses the message that words matter.Whether it’s your relationship with G-d, your family, or the neighbor whose dog you promised to walk, words matter. May we all keep the commitments emanating from the words that leave our lips. Good Shabbos
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 Good Shabbos
Rabbi Oppenheim
Charlotte Torah Center