Living Torah by Rabbi Ari Enkin
This week we have a double Torah portion: Matot and Maasei (Numbers 30:2-36:13). The word “Matot” means “tribes” or “divisions” while the word “Massei” means “journeys”. The first portion opens with instruction to the leaders of the tribes while second portion discusses the final journeys of the Jewish people as they prepare to enter the Land of Israel.
I would like to focus on the first Torah portion. Matot opens with the laws of commitments, oaths, promises, and pledges. In Judaism, one’s word is one’s word. Deviating from one’s word or other commitment is considered to be an especially grave offense in Judaism. As the Torah says:
“Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes and told them, ‘this is the thing that God COMMANDED: If a person makes a vow…HE SHALL NOT VIOLATE HIS WORD. What he said, HE WILL DO’.
The Torah then goes on to discuss all types of vows and oaths, and the relationship between the different people who might make such commitments to each other: Husbands and wives, parents and children, and others.
It all sounds nice and reasonable, but here’s a question that many of the commentators ask: Why is it that this Torah portion with its commandments and precepts concerning vows and commitments were given to the “heads of the tribes”? As we know, these, and all the other mitzvot of the Torah are for the entire Jewish people!! Why do the heads of the tribes get a private, VIP sneak preview, into these laws before everyone else?
A number of answers are offered. According to some commentators, God simply wanted to honor the leaders in this way. Let’s face it; leadership is often a thankless job. An occasional VIP meeting with Moses and God is certainly a welcome perk of the job!
Another explanation offered is because a vow can only be annulled by an expert. The annulment of vows in Judaism is actually a very serious matter, no different than any other discipline of Torah law. For example, only a shochet, a trained and certified ritual slaughterer, is permitted to slaughter animals for consumption, and only a sofer, a trained and certified scribe is permitted to write a Torah scroll. So too, only an expert in the laws of vows and oaths is permitted to annul them. As such, Moses was telling the leaders that they would be expected to be proficient in these laws so that the people could come to them, when need be, in order to annul their vows.
But an even more important reason that the section of oaths, promises, and commitments were given to the leaders is because the Torah is trying to teach the leaders the importance of commitment. The importance of keeping one’s word. The importance of keeping “campaign promises”. The people always look to their leaders as an example of honesty and integrity. As such, the Torah is essentially saying: Not only are you to be expert in the laws of vows and commitments, but be sure to serve as a role model in the position. Be sure to keep you word and commitments!
This is the trademark of a true Torah leader: a person who keeps his word. We need to ensure that our political leaders do the same. We have to stand up to our leaders, politicians, and others in power who become corrupt, who lie, who cheat, and steal. Indeed, there are many lessons in leadership in the Torah that today’s leader can learn from.