We don’t appreciate the power of our speech and prayers, which can move mountains in this world and in the spiritual worlds.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
This week we read the double portion of “Matot-Maasei” (Numbers 30:2–36:13) and boy is it action packed! We read about the laws of making and annulling vows, the attack on Midian in response to the devastation the Midianites caused the Jewish people, the purification of people and vessels, the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to settle east of the Jordan river, the complete list of the Jewish people’s desert journeys, the borders of the Land of Israel, and so much more!
Here, we will focus on the first topic of the reading: oaths and vows, or more accurately, the power of one’s words. An oath or vow is binding, as the Torah says “all that comes out from his mouth he must do.” (Numbers 30:3)
Vows are much more extensive than one might realize. For example, one who, for whatever reason, takes a vow not to eat chocolate actually turns chocolate into a non-kosher product. That is the power of one’s words!
Let me share with you a passage from the Talmud on the power of one’s words. The Talmud asks what should be done in a situation where limited funds would only allow either a father or a son to pursue full-time Torah study. Who takes priority?
One opinion says that the father takes priority, while another opinion says that if the son is more of the scholarly type than the father, then the son should be given the allowance to pursue full-time Torah study.
The Talmud then tells us that Rabbi Acha sent his son, Rabbi Yaakov, to study at Abaye’s yeshiva. On one of Yaakov’s visits home, Acha noticed that Yaakov was not accomplishing as much as he should have been. His learning was not as sharp as expected. As such, Acha decided that he would replace his son as the one who would use the opportunity to pursue full-time Torah study.
And so it was. Yaakov remained at home and the great Rabbi Acha headed to the yeshiva.
Now the story gets exciting. When Abaye heard that Rabbi Acha was coming to his yeshiva, he decided to use the opportunity, in a not very honest manner, to have Acha fight off a demon that had been haunting the yeshiva.
Abaye decreed, “No one may offer Rabbi Acha lodging when he arrives!”
The intention of this decree was to force Rabbi Acha to spend the night in the yeshiva where he would encounter the demon. He was hoping that the demon would confront Rabbi Acha, whose holiness and spiritual prowess would then destroy the demon. However, Abaya was putting Acha’s life in danger with this ruse.
But the plan worked.
Nobody welcomed Acha into their home. Acha was forced to spend the night in the yeshiva. As expected, the demon confronted Acha in the form of a seven-headed serpent. Acha fought the demon with prayer, and with every prayer he said, one of the demon’s heads fell off. Finally, the serpent died.
Acha said to himself, “If not for this miracle, I could have been killed!” Needless to say, Acha was not impressed with level of hospitality of his new community.
The question is asked: How could Abaye have tricked Acha into a dangerous situation, hoping that a miracle would occur? Furthermore, we are told that even when a miracle occurs for a person, his or her merits are reduced in exchange.
How could Abaye “steal” Acha’s merits in this manner?
Here is the rest of the story. It is explained that Abaye’s confidence that Rabbi Acha would prevail was so great that he didn’t even consider the ruse to be “relying on a miracle.” It was a sure thing!
Rabbi Acha’s prayers could move mountains. It was like any of us stepping on a cockroach to kill it. Not much of a fight there.
This is the power of our words. This is the power of our prayers. We don’t give enough weight to the power of speech, both in terms of what it can accomplish in this world as well as what it can accomplish in the spiritual words. May we use the power of speech, vows, and prayer in only good ways that help us connect to God and our fellow man.
For more of Rabbi Ari Enkin’s insights on this week’s Torah reading, click on the links below:
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