Klal Yisrael and Vows
The Torah portion opens with the laws appertaining to vows:
When a man makes a vow to God, or swears an oath to prohibit something to his soul, he shall not profane his word; all that his mouth has expressed he must do. (Bamidbar 30:3)
Yisrael are bound by the command not to profane their words; the nations of the world are not. (Yalkut Shimoni)
This short Chazal does not simply mean that klal Yisrael must keep their word, whereas others need not. Instead, something deeper is implied. To appreciate what lies behind this, let us take a look at the very nature of vows through the penetrating view of my holy father.
* * *
VOWS AND KEDUSHAH
A vow can create something quite remarkable, for it can imbue an ordinary object with sanctity or with prohibition. Through a mere declaration, a Jew may dedicate an item to the Beis HaMikdash, the holy Temple, or prohibit its use for himself or others. Violation of this vow is considered a grave offense, punishable within the usual Torah framework. The power of speech is sufficient to alter the nature of an object entirely, changing it from something ordinary into a mitzvah item. The great Rabbeinu Yonah, an important medieval Talmudic commentator, noted that if a Jew guards his mouth, correctly reserving it only for holy purposes, then it itself becomes holy. He may thus imbue his speech with holiness. The mouth becomes like a sanctified vessel used in the Beis HaMikdash - when flour or oil comes in contact with it, it too, assumes a status of holiness. When a developed, controlled person speaks, his words have the power to sanctify the subject of that speech. Indeed this very idea is encapsulated by Rashi, who comments on our verse:
He shall not profane his word - ...he should not make his words mundane. (Rashi, Bamidbar 30:3)
We have the ability to sanctify the world with our speech. The Torah here enjoins us not to misuse this power by speaking nonsense or uttering vows that we will later profane.
But this is not the entire picture. We have not really addressed why it is that the mouth has this power of sanctification more than any other part of the body. Why, for example, do we not consider a sanctified hand or foot a holy vessel, capable of transmitting holiness to those objects with which they come in contact? Perhaps the following verse will help us to understand. God, through the prophet, declares:
This people I have formed for Myself, they shall tell My praise. (Yeshayahu 43:21)
The purpose of Yisrael is defined by this verse: God created us so that we should praise Him. As such, the power of speech is accorded special properties. It is, in some ways, the most Godly and spiritual of our properties. Thus it is endowed with particular qualities above and beyond those of the other parts of the body, enabling it to imbue the world with sanctity.
This helps us to deal with the issue with which we began. We have discovered that "this people" - klal Yisrael - were created with the specific task of praising God. To achieve this, they were provided with a special ability, that of holy speech, with which to sanctify the physical world. The other nations of the world, however, have different functions from that of Yisrael. As such, they were not given this special power.
This is the meaning behind the Yalkut which states that only a member of klal Yisrael is included in the verse which prohibits profaning one's word. As we saw, this means that one must not make one's words mundane. This applies only to klal Yisrael, who have the ability to make their words holy, but not to the non-Jewish nations, who do not.
* * *
MORE ABOUT SPEECH
This analysis will help us to look a little more deeply into the nature of speech and klal Yisrael's special use of it. We quoted Rabbeinu Yonah, who indicated that if one "guards" one's mouth, then it may be considered a holy vessel, capable of sanctifying it's speech. This is hard to understand in the light of the fact that God has created us to praise Him. Surely this task should be sufficient to imbue one's mouth with holiness; why does one need to guard it to ensure its sanctity? Rabbeinu Yonah implies that without care our mouths will not be capable of instilling holiness into our speech. A most unusual Chazal clarifies this matter:
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said, "Had I been at Mount Sinai at the moment when the Torah was given to Yisrael, I would have demanded that man should have been created with two mouths - one for Torah and prayer and the other for mundane matters. But then I retracted and exclaimed that if we fail and speak lashon hara with only one mouth, how much more so would we fail with two mouths." (Yerushalmi, Berachos 1:2)
The concern expressed by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was that after something has been defiled it remains in that state, until some drastic action is taken to reverse or renew its sanctity. He realized that if the mouth is misused for lashon hara or other verbal sins, then it is defiled and loses its status of holiness, which cannot then be recovered. If, he reasoned, we have only one mouth, and we use it wrongly, there is no way back - we will never be able to use it for holy purposes again. The mouth will remain defiled, and any Torah or prayers which are uttered from it will not be sanctified in the appropriate manner. His proposed solution was two mouths for each person, one of which would be reserved just for Torah matters. In that way, even if the "secular" mouth were to be defiled, the "Torah" mouth would retain its ability to sanctify speech. But Rabbi Shimon realized the impracticality of this suggestion, for the inevitable would occur. In a short while, both mouths would be defiled, achieving nothing.
We now understand Rabbeinu Yonah's imperative. Only a person who guards his mouth will merit to sanctify his speech. Without this precondition, the mouth fails to achieve its potential as a holy vessel and therefore cannot produce holy speech. Of course, when we err, we may always do teshuvah and begin the process again. Let us hope that we merit to utilize our own mouths and the speech which they produce to ennoble and sanctify the world around us.