Living Torah

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel

In this week’s reading, we see the importance that the Torah attaches to promises and vows as well as the need for leaders to transmit important values effectively.

This week’s Torah portion is Matot (Numbers 30:2 -32:42), meaning “Tribes.” Most years, Matot is combined with the following week’s Torah portion, Maasei, to ensure that the Torah is completed within a single Jewish calendar year. This year, however, is a Jewish leap year, which provides for four extra Sabbaths during which the Torah is read. Hence, the usual ‘Torah portion congestion’ does not exist this year; most usual double portions are separated and read on their own.

The first event in the week’s reading is the presentation of the laws of vows and commitments. “You shall keep any commitment that emanates from your mouth,” says the Torah.

We find something unique about the presentation of these laws. While most of the laws of the Torah were either said to the entire Jewish people, or to Moses for him to teach to the Jewish people, the Torah tells us that these specific laws were first given to the Roshei HaMatot – the heads of the tribes. This is the only place in the Torah where we see that a message is given to the heads of the tribes before anyone else.

The commentators grapple with this question, and a number of answers are offered.

According to one approach, the laws concerning vows should not be taught to the masses. It is explained that the act of taking oaths, vows and other commitments is a very serious matter. There is a concern that if the masses quickly learned that vows may be nullified, people would not hesitate to make promises and commitments. They would treat this stringent area of Jewish law without the appropriate reverence that it demands. In fact, we are taught not to make commitments – not even commitments that have no chance of being violated.

Each Individual Learns Differently

As such, these laws were given to the heads of tribes who could be relied upon to properly digest the information and present it to their followers in an appropriate manner and in a way that their people would accept it, each leader according to his tribe.

This is the way it should be whenever we transit important teachings or traditions to our children. We must realize that not all children are able to accept things in the same way. Some things are “harder to swallow” for some children than for others. As “heads of the tribes,” as parents, as teachers, and as concerned neighbors and friends, we must know how to teach our children and all others whom we can properly influence.