Parshios Matos & Masei
Vows: The Power of Speech
This week’s parshah begins with a topic that probably is not too interesting
for the average reader: Nedarim, or Vows. After all, most people don’t even
make them, or worse, don’t know that they make them.
In the Torah world, it is very common for people to say “blee neder,” which
means “without vow,” when talking about doing something that could
constitute a mitzvah. Though it may be out of habit, the underlying meaning
is, “I’ll try and do this good thing, but if I don’t, it should not be as if
I broke my word.”
The point of a vow is obvious. By invoking the Name of God, as is usually
done with vows, one creates obligation where it otherwise would not exist. A
vow can turn what could easily have been a non-mitzvah situation into a
mitzvah-situation, since by not fulfilling the vow one violates the mitzvah
to not take the Name of God in vain.
For example, one could, theoretically, use a vow to diet. For a person who
has difficulty following through with a commitment to eat less food, or only
certain types of food, one could use a vow to make food that is otherwise
permitted to him, but undesirable for a weight-related reason, actually
forbidden to him, like treif itself. He may not be afraid to break his diet
and eat fattening food, but if he has any fear of God, then he will
certainly fear taking God’s Name in vain.
Taking a vow is tricky business from a Torah perspective, particularly
because God’s Name is involved. Every sin profanes the Name of God, but the
violation of an oath or vow that was made using the Name of God is even more
severe, to such an extent that punishment for such a sin is immediate. With
most other sins, God holds back from punishing a person to allow time for a
person to do teshuvah and avoid punishment, but not for someone who has
taken His Name in vain.
On the other hand, the Talmud says that someone who makes a vow is like one
who has built an altar to God, and if he fulfills his vow, then it is as if
he has offered a sacrifice to God. From this it would seem that, as risky as
taking a vow might be, still, the fulfillment of a proper vow is meritorious.
It is the power of speech that Nedarim harnesses, something that we tend to
take for granted. Eisav was of the firm belief that it is physical work that
makes the physical world go around and did mostly that. Ya’akov understood
that man’s greatest gift and strength is his power of speech, given to him
the moment God breathed Adam’s soul into his body:
God formed man from dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils a
living soul, and the man became a living spirit. (Bereishis 2:7)
A living spirit: A speaking spirit. (Onkeles)
Hence, the Talmud’s surprising conclusion while discussing the purpose of life:
Rebi Elazar said: Every man was created to toil, as it says, “Because man
was made to toil …” (Iyov 5:7). Now, I do not know if that means to toil
through speech, or in actual labor; however, once it says, “A toiling soul
toils for him, for his mouth compels him” (Mishlei 16:26), I know that a
person was created to toil with his mouth. I do not know, though, if this
means to toil in Torah or just in regular conversation. However, once it
says, “This Torah should not leave your mouth” (Yehoshua 1:8), I know that
man was created to toil in Torah [through speech]. (Sanhedrin 99b)
Speech is powerful. One word, or even the omission of a single word, can
change the entire destiny of a person and even the world. There are plenty
of examples of this, and we are watching one right now every day in the
news. It is the story of Eric Snowden, who has chosen to leak to the world
classified information about how the American government spies on its own
He has dropped a bomb for sure, but not in the physically explosive sense of
the term. He has said things that have triggered a Senate commission which
began investigating the matter by calling in some of the top U.S. security
people for questioning. Hero or traitor, he has triggered high-level
reactions that are sure to impact how organizations like the NSA handle
their responsibilities from this point onward.
And, he has created international tension amongst the greatest of world
powers today. He has caused the Vice President of the United States to get
on the phone with the President of Ecuador offering greater trade benefits
if he will deny Snowden asylum, just as the Ecuadorian Embassy in London did
for Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame.
It’s not only about what you know. It is also about your ability to talk
I don’t need to go into whole centrality of speech, because I did that in my
book, Redemption to Redemption: The Very Deep & Intricate Connection
Between the Holidays of Purim and Pesach. However, we do need to be
reminded each year of just how powerful speech can be to create or change
realities, as we learn from the laws of vows in this week’s parshah.
And, it is not something to be abused. Indeed, for trying to curse the
Jewish people, the Arizal revealed, Bilaam reincarnated as a rock. There are
four levels of existence: Domeim, which means “silent,” and which
corresponds to the mineral world, is the lowest of the four. That is the
level on which Bilaam’s soul resided for a while for having abused his power
As Rashi points out in Parashas Emor , it was Shlomis bas Divri (literally,
Shlomis daughter of my word), the wife of Dasan, whose constant chattering
caused her to have a child through an Egyptian taskmaster. It was that child
who later, at the end of Parashas Emor, blasphemed God and received the
death penalty for doing so.
Hence, the Talmud points out, evil people tend to say much while doing
little that is meaningful. For righteous people, the opposite is true: They
say little and do much. They don’t have to talk that much, because they
weigh every word they speak, to make sure it is worth speaking and will do
the job it must to make the world a better place.
Having done a little public speaking, I can say first hand that you can
often see the power of speech when giving a compelling dvar Torah. A single
speaker can stand at the podium and with the right information and a good
delivery, captivate hundreds of people, unifying all of them with each word
he says and every idea he expresses.
Hitler, ysv”z, understood the power of speech, and harnessed it to motivate
millions of people to either become murderers or to at least not interfere
with those who did. He used the power of speech extremely effectively,
albeit it for terrible evil. Surely we should harness and use the power of
speech for incredible good.
Text Copyright © 2013 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.