June 16, 2024
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Matot: The Promise of Torah

It is almost as if Parshat Matot is trying to be ironic. We read in the preceding parsha about Tzelofchad’s daughters’ desire and effort to inherit a portion of the Land of Israel. In Matot we read how two tribes decided that the recently conquered Transjordan territory was quite sufficient for their tastes. They do not want to pass over the Jordan and inherit the land promised to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Although Transjordan was conquered at God’s command, it cannot compare to the Land of Israel. Indeed, in the mishna of Bikkurim Rabi Yosi HaGlili declares that “we do not bring first fruits (bikkurim) from beyond the Jordan, for that is not a land flowing with milk and honey” (1:10). Yet, two tribes do not seem to care. Quite a contrast to Tzelofchad’s daughters.

Consider also the parsha’s opening dealing with the laws of vows and oaths. (The parsha speaks of a neder, a restriction on an object, and shvuot, a restriction on taking an action. These are commonly rendered in English as vows and oaths but fail to capture the true meaning of these Hebrew words.) It makes sense to raise this topic at this point. The two tribes that desired to live in the Transjordan vowed to help with the conquest of the land. The nation is about to war with Midian to punish them for enticing Israel to sin. Thereafter, Bnei Yisrael will begin the conquest of the Land of Israel. No doubt that before going to war, more than a few Israelite soldiers would make vows in furtherance of their safe return. So, mentioning vows and oaths seems appropriate, but the actual laws of vows in the parsha seem, again, to aim at irony.

The laws of vows and oaths that inaugurate the parsha do not relate to men heading off to war. Nor do they concern how to make or perform a vow. Rather, they concern how to annul vows. Specifically, vows made by married women or single women living in their father’s homes, people who are not heading off to war. How does this connect with the rest of the parsha? Further, why specifically address these laws to the heads (Matot) of the tribes?

The Torah tells us that if a woman’s father annuls her vow, Hashem will forgive her (30:6). If the vow was annulled, what is there to forgive? Although Parshat Matot’s text does not contain anything prompting us to assume that the woman’s vow related to being a nazir, Rashi states that the woman vowed to be nazir, but nonetheless drank wine before learning that the vow was annulled. Thus, she either drank with a mindset of violating her vow, or she drank the wine out of carelessness. I believe that her “sin” is not the theoretical violation of the vow but the initial vow itself. This is hinted at by Rashi’s answer concerning a nazarite vow.

In Parshat Naso (Bamidbar 6:14), we find that when the period of nezirut is completed, the nazir must bring a sin offering. The Gemara in Taanit (11a) explains that this offering is for having abstained from all wine. Similarly, Rambam in Hilchot De’ot (3:1) declares that one should not make vows and oaths to deny oneself permitted things. The nazir in Parshat Naso and the woman in our parsha both failed to consider their actions. The Torah does not advocate extremes. Although vows of prohibition are permitted, it is not the ideal course. More likely than not the goal underlying the prohibitory vow could be accomplished by a means other than prohibiting that which the Torah permits. That is perhaps the sin’s source: failing to recognize the scope of Hashem’s wisdom as found in His Torah.

The connection between the laws of annulling vows and oaths and the two tribes’ request to remain in Transjordan is now apparent. Neither the woman nor the tribes thought things through. The woman failed to realize it was unnecessary to add to the Torah’s prohibitions. Had she contemplated more, or consulted with sages, she would have found in the Torah a different and better path. Similarly, the two tribes failed to consider that the Land of Israel’s spiritual benefits outweigh any perceived material benefits in Transjordan. Nor did they consider the enormous material benefits the Land of Israel provides, as was demonstrated by the produce the spies brought back some 40 years earlier. Further, as Moshe needed to point out (32:24), the two tribes also failed to consider that the most important thing was not first building cattle pens and then cities for the families (32:16), but the reverse. Thus, the woman and the two tribes both failed to think things through. One failed to see that all is in the Torah and the other failed to see that Hashem’s chosen land can provide for all.

The failure to think also provides a connection with another aspect of the parsha. Bnei Yisrael’s soldiers returned from fighting Midian with female prisoners. Moshe was furious. He points out that the Midianite women were responsible for the Jews sinning. The Jewish soldiers failed to think about the cause of, and purpose of, the war. Similarly, the two tribes failed to think and recollect that the purpose in leaving Egypt was not to wax rich and become materially prosperous, but to grow closer to Hashem in a land that engenders spirituality.

Now we also see why the laws of vows and oaths were directed toward the heads of tribes. They were not just temporal leaders, they were leaders in Torah. Their obligations included disseminating Torah wisdom. Their mission was to teach the people what the Mishna would later record in the name of Ben Bag Bag in Pirkei Avot (5:28): “Turn it [the Torah] over and turn it over for all is in it.” Rather than make rash, ill-informed vows, we should turn to those knowledgeable in Torah for guidance. The answers to all our questions, even mundane questions, can be found in the sea of wisdom that we call Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim, Mishna and Gemara. We simply need to look for it, ideally with the help of learned guides such as those who headed the tribes.

May we merit to heed the words of Ben Bag Bag and then find our answers in the Torah, which even more than land is the “inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob” (Devarim 33:4).


William S. J. Fraenkel received a bachelor of arts in religion and a law degree from NYU, and has served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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