YOUR WORD IS YOUR BOND

Parashas Mattos reminds us of the timeless values that have distinguished our people throughout the centuries. As the parashah opens, Moshe commands the leaders of the tribes, and, through them, the entire nation, regarding the sanctity of vows and the tragic consequences of not keeping one's word, which the Torah regards as a desecration.[1]

Our faith is linked to the sanctity of speech. It is through speech that we committed ourselves to an eternal covenant with God when we proclaimed "Na'aseh v'nishma." It is through speech, via prayer and Torah study, that we continue to connect with our God. It is through speech that we give expression to the Divine spark that God breathed into our beings. It is through speech that God created the world and it is through speech that we, in our own human fashion, send forth positive or negative energies. As stated previously, "Death and life are in the tongue."[2]

We have 14 positive and 17 negative commandments, all centering around speech. To protect us from using our tongues irresponsibly, God places them behind two gates, our teeth and our lips, so that before we speak, we may weigh and measure our words, for once they are spoken, we cannot easily undo them or take them back. The damage wrought by broken promises, curses, and painful or blasphemous words cannot be easily erased. The converse, of course, is also true. Kind, warm, loving words are balm for the soul and have the power to transform darkness into light and despair into hope.

ANOTHER FACE OF GRATITUDE

God instructs Moses to "take vengeance ... against the Midianites,"[3] but, strangely enough, rather than assume this responsibility, Moses appoints Phinehas to lead the people in battle. At first glance, it is difficult to understand Moses' reaction, for he was a loyal servant of God, ever ready to do His bidding, and this transfer of responsibility is totally out of character for him. But herein lies a powerful lesson to guide us on the road of life.

When Pharaoh discovered that Moses, the young prince, was a Jew, he was determined to kill him. Moses had to flee for his life and found refuge in the land of Midian. Many years had passed since that incident. The world scene had changed; the Midianites were an evil, immoral people, bent upon seducing and destroying the Jewish nation. Nevertheless, Moses could not do battle against them, for at one point in his life, he had benefited from the Midianites' hospitality. Similarly, when God brought the Ten Plagues upon Egypt, Moses was not permitted to strike the water of the Nile (Aaron struck the Nile), for, when he was an infant, the water had sheltered him. If Moses had to be grateful to a body of water, an incorporeal entity that had not made a willful decision to save him, how much more should it hold true for human beings? We are never permitted to forget or take for granted an act of kindness or a favor rendered.

This message is especially relevant to our generation, in which ingratitude is so commonplace. We easily forget benefits that we have enjoyed and rationalize our insensitivity by saying, "It's coming to me!" or "They owe it to me!" Let us guard against such rationalizations; let us never lose sight of the kindnesses that have been extended to us and let us work on developing our sense of gratitude.

A TRUE LEADER

God instructs Moses to tell the Jewish people to do battle against the Midianites who were the cause of the terrible plague that befell them. At the same time, however, God also informs Moses that following that battle he would die.[4] Knowing this information before the battle, Moses could have taken his time, especially since God did not give him a specific time frame in which to carry out his task. No one could have faulted him had he delayed this action in order to prolong his life. Moses, however, responds with alacrity to the call of Hashem and puts aside his own personal wishes. And that is the mark of true greatness, true leadership: to have the ability to think of the greater good of one's family and one's people rather than one's own narrow, selfish concerns.

Moses' example challenges us to examine our own actions, our own priorities. Are we prompted by selfish concerns? Do we come first, or do we see the needs of our families, our people, and the call of God as our first priority?

LIFE'S BATTLES

The soldiers of Israel return victorious from their battle with the Midianites, but, paradoxically, it is written, "who came to battle," rather than "who returned from battle."[5] From this we learn that after winning a battle, after tasting success, we may feel overly confident and arrogant, deluding ourselves into believing that we no longer are required to be vigilant. Therefore, the soldiers of our people are warned that the real battle is just starting, and that is the battle of life. The battle of life is a constant struggle against the yetzer hara, of which we must remain vigilant until the day we die.

In this same parashah, Elazar the priest proceeds to instruct the people in regard to the laws of kashering vessels by purging them. One may wonder about the connection between these two themes, and once again there is a message for us: The path to success in our ongoing life struggle is to purge ourselves of all that is "non-kosher," all that is antithetical to the Torah way of life. But what we should remember for all time, what should imbue us with courage and hope, is the deeper meaning of this teaching. If a pot, which is an inanimate object, can be made kosher, how much more so can a human being, who carries within him the breath of God, who has a holy neshamah, become holy again and be purged of even the most terrible failings.

HOW MUCH DO YOU FEEL?

The Torah informs us that the tribes of Reuben and Gad had abundant livestock and requested permission from Moses to settle on the other side of the Jordan where the land "is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock."[6]

Moses' response transcends the centuries and speaks to us in every generation: "Shall your brothers go to battle while you settle here?"[7]

We, the Jewish people, are one family. If any one of us is hurting, we are all hurting. The heart of each and every Jew must beat with the heart of his people. Yes, Moses' question challenges us in every generation.

Our parents have often related how, in the concentration camps, they asked, "Can it be that our brethren in America are silent? Can it be that they are busy with their own lives while we are being fed to the ovens? Can it be that they don't hear our cry? Can it be that they don't see our tears? Can it be ...? Can it be ...?"

This question of Moses speaks to us, not only in times of Holocaust, but in our everyday family life as well. Can it be that you are buying jewelry while your sister can't pay her rent? Can it be that you are going on vacation while your father is lying alone in his hospital bed? Can it be that you are celebrating at your holiday table while your brother sits alone in his dark apartment? Can it be ...? Can it be ...?

Moses' challenge demands that we take a good look at our lives and examine to what extent we feel empathy for our families, for our people. When you read in the papers that there was another suicide attack in Israel in which our people were massacred, do you stop to shed a tear? Do you stop to pronounce a prayer, or do you move on? Is it business as usual?

JEWISH PRIORITIES

The tribes of Reuben and Gad hastened to assure Moses that they intended to join their brethren in battle. "Pens for the flock shall we build here for our livestock and cities for our small children. We shall arm ourselves swiftly in the vanguard of the Children of Israel...."[8]

Moshe Rabbeinu is not satisfied with their response and corrects them, saying, "Build for yourselves cities for your small children and pens for your flock."[9]

There is a profound lesson in Moshe Rabbeinu's correction that, once again, is relevant for all times. Even as the tribes of Reuben and Gad put their livestock before their families; even as the tribes of Reuben and Gad prioritized Israel - the Jewish people - over Hashem, there are those today who put business first and families second, and regard their commitment to Israel and the Jewish people above their faith in Hashem. They forget that love of Israel and the Jewish nation has meaning only if it is rooted in Torah and commitment to God.

NOTES

1. Numbers 30:3.
2. Proverbs 18:21.
3. Numbers 31:1.
4. Ibid. 31:1-2.
5. Ibid. 31:21.
6. Ibid. 32:1-5.
7. Ibid. 32:6.
8. Ibid. 32:16-17.
9. Ibid. 32:24.

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