Parshiyos Matos and Masei 5757 - '97
Outline # 45
by Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein
The Parshiyos begin with the subject of vows. The conclusion seems
more extensive, however: "Don't profane your words -- everything that comes
out of your mouth, fulfill." (Bamidbar 30:3) See the Shlah: When making a
promise, knowledgeable people often add "Bli Neder" -- "No Guarantee," as
if they are no longer bound to keep their word. The Shlah writes that it
doesn't help; if you say you will do something, you should keep your word
-- even if technically you are not responsible.
The severity of oaths was already mentioned in the Aseres Hadivros
("Ten Commandments") and elsewhere. Here, the Torah tells us the importance
of words. It states in Tehilim (Psalms119:160): "The beginning of Your word
is truth"; if we are to emulate Hashem, our word must also be laden with
Ma'aseh Avos Simon L'banim
The Actions of the Forefathers are Signs for the Children
Avraham wanted to buy a certain burial site for Sarah. It was owned by
a Hittite, Ephron. Ephron indicated he was willing to give the property away,
but Avraham wanted to purchase it. Ephron then mentioned an exorbitant price.
Avraham carefully counted out the money on the spot, and the transaction
was made. Rashi mentions that Ephron said much, but did nothing. Avraham,
however, kept his word. He said he would pay, and he did.
Yaakov went to his uncle, Lavan. He made an agreement to work for Lavan
in order to marry Lavan's daughter, Rochel. Lavan tricked Yaakov, and Yaakov
had to make another agreement. In the ensuing years, Yaakov was constantly
manipulated by Lavan, who was forever breaking contractual agreements. Yet
Yaakov fulfilled his word.
Later, the Torah commands us to have just weights and measures. If an
Ephron or a Lavan swindles you, you still must treat him in a just and fair
manner. If you can bring him to court, it's another matter, by all means
press charges; nonetheless, there are no excuses for cheating. You are not
allowed to steal from a thief. (Halacha does, technically, allow for the
victim to restore his own property by private seizure; Nesivos Hamishpat,
however, shows that the technicalities are so difficult as to make this ruling
extremely unusual. [Choshen Mishpat Simon 4].)
The Power of the Word
"Blessed is the One Who spoke, and the world came into being." (The Sidur.)
"Shehakol nehiyeh bedvaro" -- everything came into existence by His Word
-- (blessing over food.) "Verbal expression to Hashem is akin to a complete
transaction for an individual." (Mishnah, Kedushin, Chapter 1, Mishnah 6.)
'Mishiparah' -- they say, "The one who exacted payment from the generation
of the Flood and from the generation of the Dispersion -- will exact punishment
from one who does not stand up to his words!" (Mishnah, Baba Metzia, Chapter
4, Mishnah 2.) This is a formula pronounced by the court when someone uses
a particular loophole to void a transaction. True, the court may be powerless
to act, but the public pronouncement of this formula is an embarrassing reminder
of the consequences of not keeping one's word.
Ramban, in Parshas Matos, discusses the Mishnah: "Verbal expression to
Hashem is akin to a complete transaction for an individual." For one who
commits himself to bring a sacrifice, it is considered as if a complete
transaction has already occurred. The animal has already been purchased,
and must simply be turned over.
Human Ethics vs. the Holy Torah
Regarding last week's issue: ` "If anyone says there is wisdom among
the nations -- believe them! If anyone says there is Torah among the nations
-- do not believe them!" ` (The actual quote is from Eichah Rabsai, chapter
2.) One of our readers suggested an interpretation: "While the nations may
be clever, they are not moral."
We replied with the traditional Rav on Pirke Avos. The Rav says that
the nations have philosophers, who write ethical theories. The basis of their
ethics, however, is simple logic. If mankind does not regulate itself, people
will destroy each other. In order to survive, we must have moral guidelines.
Pirke Avos -- the basis of Jewish Ethics -- begins with an account of the
dissemination of the Torah. This informs us that the Torah Ethics is not
man-made, nor merely for the survival of humanity, but of holy inspiration.
The distinction, then, is that the Torah is Kodesh -- holy. The nations
may have wisdom, but not the holy, divinely inspired, non-human traditions
of the Torah.
In Ner Mitzvah, the Maharal wrote that Chanukah represented the greatest
threat to the Torah, because the Yavanim/Greeks had uncovered much wisdom.
Wisdom is closely related to the Torah. The reason the Jews survived was
only due to the Kohanim, who represent Sanctity. Even there -- the Jews were
vulnerable, and the Sacred Beis Hamikdash (the Temple) was contaminated.
Yehudah Macabee and the Chesmonayim were not merely Kohanim, but the family
of the Kohanim Gedolim (the high Priest). Only the highest level -- Kodesh
Kodashim, Holy of Holies -- remained uncontaminated.
What's the Difference?
In retrospect, however, our answer and our reader's answer don't seem
to be much different. See Pirke Avos, chapter 5, Mishnah 10: "One who says,
`What's mine is mine; what's yours is yours,' this is average. Some say --
this is the quality of S'dom." See Akeidas Yitzchak: The people of S'dom
also had laws and moral codes. The purpose, though, was to maintain their
own property. "I must respect your rights and not steal from you, because
I don't want you to steal from me!" When it came to doing acts of charity
-- that's where they drew the line. "There is no reason for us to help
The American economy prides itself on competition, which, in theory,
promotes technological progress and economic growth. That may be fine and
good, but how often do we see large corporations manipulate markets to their
advantage? The products found in the average American household are virtually
dictated by small groups of corporate executives. How many banks, goods and
services are run by nameless, faceless machines? Uncontrolled competition
eliminates competition. Controls may superficially prop up competition, but
the consumer suffers with lessened quality and availability.
Does the Torah advocate socialism or capitalism? Neither, Rabbi Jung
used to say, but rather "tzadikism." The Torah teaches that it is wrong to
encroach upon another's income. You want to open the same sort of business
as your friend? Fine -- do it across town, but don't steal his customers.
Tzadikei Umos Ha'olam
Righteous People of the Nations
It doesn't have to be this way, though. Several years ago, we discussed
the welfare system and foreign grants of the US in relation to charity (in
concept). Dale Carnegie, famous author of How to Win Friends and Influence
People, knew his audience well, and focused his lectures on "how to make
larger profits by being nice." But we have heard in the name of a great Rabbinic
authority that Carnegie qualified as one of the "tzadikei umos
ha'olam" -- righteous people of the nations. Helping the audience make their
profit was merely a means of getting their attention; his real theme involved
a higher purpose.
Chodshei Hashanah Part Thirty
During the period of mourning for the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash,
we would do well by remembering that we, ourselves, have not always acted
in the most noble fashion. When the Jew appears conniving and dishonest,
the effects can be unimaginable. Make a good impression -- the reputation
of the Torah is at stake. (George Washington ordered his troops to do business
with Jewish merchants, because he knew they used honest weights and measures.)
Tzidkiyahu had his oath to Nebuchadnetzar, the Babylonian King, nullified
by the court. (Nedarim 65a.) It may have been technically acceptable, but
it was part of the final breakdown of the Torah's reputation in the eyes
of the Babylonians. Shortly after, Yerusholayim was invaded, Tzidkiyahu taken
captive, and the Beis Hamikdash destroyed.
A New Beginning
Ohr L'shamayim writes that the Three Weeks is a special period for
teshuvah -- self-improvement. Chasom Sofer, in his commentary to Talmud
Yerushalmi, Taanis, explains why the prophet Yechezkeil referred to the Ninth
day of Av as the "first day of the month." (See Yechezkeil ch. 26.) On the
Ninth of Av, Tom "the iniquity of the daughter of Zion is complete." (Eichah
4:22) Our suffering has atoned, and we can begin planning anew, planning
for a once-again-glorious future.
For this reason, explained the Chasom Sofer, there is a custom to call
the month by its name of "Av" -- only until the ninth. From then on, the
month is called "Menachem Av" -- the Consolation of Av. It is a new beginning.
(For more information, see Insights, Vol. 7, #44.)
Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein
1 Babbin Court
Text Copyright © '97 Rabbi
Yaakov Bernstein and Project Genesis,