What I Want, or What Others Want?
If a man makes a vow to God or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he shall
not violate his word . . .(Bamidbar 30:3)
Since it is a leap year, we are able to deal with Parashas Mattos on its
own, and not together with Parashas Massey as is usually the case in a non-
The parshah deals with three major topics: the laws of vows, war of
retribution against Midian for the Balak-Bilaam affair, and the request of
the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and the half-tribe of Menashe to take up
residence on the east side of the Jordan river. Seemingly they have little
to do with each other, but in the world of Torah thought, that is never the
case. Personally, I find it easiest to crack the code of connection by
simply discussing each topic in some detail. Then the connection just seems
to “float” to the top on its own.
The first topic is that of vows, which basically means promising to do
something while invoking the Name of God. One of the Ten Commandments is to
not take the Name of God in vain, the only sin, the Talmud explains, for
which punishment is immediate. For the rest of the sins a person usually
receives some grace time to consider what he has done and make amends for
it. Anyone who takes such punishment seriously will take his oath seriously
A neder, the Hebrew for “vow,” has the power to make what otherwise might be
permissible forbidden, albeit indirectly. In general you cannot use speech
to make meat that is clearly kosher into something treif, unless one makes a
vow not to eat it. For all intents-and-purposes, it becomes treif for the
the person who vowed since eating the meat would cause the Name of God to be
used in vain.
If you analyze it, the entire strength of a neder is one’s fear of God. To
the extent that one is afraid to use God’s Name in vain is the extent to
which he will take his vow seriously. People who lack sufficient fear of God
routinely use His Name in ways that might bear a heavy cost in life, and
later on after death as well. For a neder to be real the heaviness of the
reality of God has to be real to the person making the vow.
The question is why does a person have to make a vow in the first place? The
Talmud says that someone who makes a vow is like one who has built an
illicit altar to God. When the person fulfills his vow it is as if he has
offered a sacrifice on it, making the sin even worse. As the Talmud points
out in a few places, the Jewish nation having said “We will do and we will
understand” upon receiving the Torah should have been enough of a vow to
keep us on the straight path.
The war against Midian was the Divine response to the drawing of the Jewish
people towards illicit behavior and idol worship. It wasn’t as if the Jewish
people had been looking for either. It was the diabolical scheme of Bilaam
took advantage of some vulnerabilities in the Jewish people that spiraled
out of control until the entire affair became an unmitigated disaster.
The disaster did not end there. Even after surviving the first catastrophe,
it spilled into a second one. After successfully defeating the Midianites in
battle including the killing of Bilaam, the Jewish army made a critical
error. They were supposed to have killed all of the Midianites, including,
and perhaps especially, the women with whom the sin occurred in the first
Instead, they brought back the woman, to the shock of Moshe Rabbeinu:
Moshe, Elazar the kohen, and all princes of the community went out to
meet them, outside the camp. Moshe became angry with the officers of the
army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had
returned from the campaign of war. Moshe said to them, “Did you allow all
the females to live? They were the same ones who were involved with the
Children of Israel on Bilaam’s advice to betray God over the incident of
Peor, resulting in a plague among the congregation of God.” (Bamidbar
In the final section of this week’s parshah, there is the incredible episode
involving the tribes of Gad, Reuven, and the half of the tribe of Menashe.
Blessed with a lot of livestock they opted out of their inheritance in Eretz
Yisroel in order to remain on the east side of the Jordan river. They chose
the Diaspora over the holy and promised land.
Considering that the nation had wandered for 39 extra years in the desert
because their ancestors had done similarly, Moshe became angry with them as
Moshe said to the descendants of Gad and the descendants of Reuven,
“Shall your brothers go to war while you stay here? Why do you discourage
the Children of Israel from crossing over to the land which God has given
them? This is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh Barnea to
explore the Land.” (Bamidbar 32:6-8)
In the end, they got what they requested, albeit on condition that they
fight along side the rest of the Jewish people in conquering the land.
However, as the Midrash says, living on the east side of the Jordan river
meant that they were the first to be exiled when the Assyrians later
attacked the Jewish people. Kabbalah explains that in having their request
fulfilled they postponed the Final Redemption for the entire Jewish people
until this day.
As the Vilna Gaon explains, it takes 600,000 Jews (males between the ages of
20 and 60) to settle the land at one time to neutralize the Sitra Achra,
a.k.a. the Accusing Angel, and bring the Final Redemption. The one time in
history it was really possible to do that was at that time in history. It
was an opportunity that was squandered when these two-and-a-half tribes put
their personal preferences ahead of the needs of the rest of the nation and
That is probably the best way to tie all three sections of the parshah
together with a common theme. It is nice when what we want for ourselves is
also the best thing for the rest of the nation as well, but sometimes it
does not work out that. In fact, very often it does not work out that way,
forcing the person to make a decision that will either sacrifice himself or
On occasion the sacrifice is minimal in either case. Other times it is
major, and when the sacrifice made is the wrong one it damages everyone,
including history itself. The news is filled with stories of people who
pursued the fulfillment of selfish dreams and as a result met with fatal
endings, at great cost to themselves and others around them.
When I began writing this article I did not have the following example in
mind. It came to me in the middle of writing this, and fit in perfectly with
the message I was trying to communicate.
Anyone who has been to the Middle East, especially in the Arab sections, has
probably seen men sitting around what looks like a large genie’s bottle with
rubber tentacles emanating out of it all around. At the other end of these
“tentacles” is something that is put in the mouth for smoking purposes,
something that, in English, is called “Huka.”
Over the years, unfortunately, many Israeli youth have taken to Huka as
well, and it is not unusual to find them sitting side-by-side with Arab
customers in an Arab restaurant or store partaking of the Arab custom. Many
have even bought their own Huka in order to do it at home as well.
In the best of times it is not a good practice, for security reasons as well
as for health reasons. It is certainly a terrible practice when a war is
going on against the Arabs, and kidnappings of Jews by Arabs are becoming
more prevalent. Even if everyone in the room smoking Huka is recognizable,
it takes but one stranger, looking for innocent and unsuspecting Jews who
can be taken in a moment and without a trace, to greatly increase the risk
Yet, they still go. And the ones who do not eat kosher still go to their
restaurants, not considering how their deaths or just their disappearances
would change the entire country, especially their families. Throwing caution
to the wind rarely only affects the person taking the risk, and a person has
to consider that before they take it, not matter how much the yetzer hara
pushes them to do it.
This rule about social and national responsibility applies on many levels.
For example, a person may not have any desire to live in Eretz Yisroel
today, especially if he is satisfying his own personal goals in the
Diaspora. Nevertheless, he has to ask himself how much his personal pursuits
are costing the nation, especially in terms of the Final Redemption. We
might as well ask the question now because they’re going to ask us about it
later, on our final day of judgment.
This is the flip side of war. We can all see how war unifies the nation, at
least many parts of it. If we look closer we can see that it does this
because of something else it does: it forces individuals to put the needs of
the nation before their own. United we stand, divided we fall, and no time
is this clearer than during wartime.
But who wants war? If it takes war to make us put the needs of the many
ahead of the needs of the few then that is what we’re going to get. It’s
inevitable, for two important reasons, one human and one Divine. Selfish
people create selfish societies which creates a selfish world and results in
selfish wars. That’s the human reason.
From the Divine point of view man was made in the image of God to act Godly,
which, by definition, means to put the needs of the many before the needs of
the individual. When we do that, God smiles down on mankind. When we don’t,
then He creates situations that force us to act more Godly, like war, for
The world is filled with war and promises to become even more chaotic. The
best way to mitigate the situation is to at least start considering where we
are letting our own personal goals interfere with those of the nation, and
more importantly, with those of God. That is the vision, the outlook a
person needs to develop.
Text Copyright © 2014 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.