1. Not Just Anyone
2. With Complete Faith
3. Man's Creative Energies
4. Perception Deceptive
Not Just Anyone
Parshat Matot opens with the laws of vows and oaths. In the midrash, our Sages (of Blessed Memory) include a lengthy discussion regarding such declarations: "'And Moshe spoke to the tribal heads, saying: One who takes a vow to God’. Elsewhere it is written, ‘You swore, says Hashem, in truth, justice and righteousness.’ The Holy One, Blessed be he said to Israel: ‘Do not think that you have been permitted to swear in My name even truthfully, unless you have all of the following qualities: 1) ‘You should fear the Lord your God.’ You must behave similar to those who are known as the ‘fearers of God,’ - Avraham, Job and Yosef..’ 2) And you should serve Him’ - you should make yourself available to engage in Torah and the performance of mitzvot; 3) 'And you shall cleave to Him’. Can a person truly cleave to the Divine Presence? Does it not already say, ‘The Lord Your God is an all-consuming fire?’ Rather, the meaning of this verse is that one must marry off his daughter to a Torah scholar who learns Chumash (Bible), Mishna, and one should engage in business deals to financially benefit the Torah scholar. This is what the Torah is referring to by the commandment to ‘Cleave to Him.’ If you have all of these personal attributes, then you are permitted to swear, and if not, you are forbidden to do so." (Bamidbar Rabba 22).
With Complete Faith
A person’s ability to have his words virtually create "kedusha", or holiness, to link his words to Heaven, is contingent on his complete faith that he has the ability to fulfill those words. This kind of trust and faith exists only in a person who has successfully cleaved to God, in a person who is totally at one with God and who possesses the fear of Heaven. Such a person has complete faith that he can and will fulfill his words; he does not risk offending "Shem Shamayim" - "Heaven's name." It follows that one who is not on this level is forbidden to swear. His oath is liable to be destructive - as elucidated in the midrash. It recounts how King Yannai, who ruled over two thousand cities, all of which were destroyed as a result of true oaths . In the end, there was no affront to the name of Heaven. Yannai stood by his every word, and even so, the oaths brought with them a certain degree of danger of the desecration of God’s name. There was no certainty that the words of King Yannai would be fulfilled. As a result, the cities over which he ruled were destroyed.
Man's Creative Energies
We should stress, however, that our sages did not have a completely negative attitude towards oaths: "And you should take an oath, says God." The Holy One, Blessed be He is interested in having a Jewish person attain the level of perfection that will enable him to sanctify his speech and to direct his words towards Heaven.
In the parsha (portion) dealing with oaths, the Torah introduces the concept of man being able to infuse his reality with holiness through the power of speech. Such a power stems from the principle elucidated in Tehilim (Psalms): "By the word of God were the Heavens fashioned." This same power, of shaping reality through speech, characterizes the Children of Israel, whose power also lies in speech. Our forefather Yitzchak recognized this quality prior to issuing the blessing to Ya'akov: Hearing Ya'akov speak, Yitzchak exclaimed:"The voice is the voice of Ya’akov"...
In fact, according to Jewish sources, the entire world is sustained by the merit of the Torah learning, by prayer uttered by the Jewish people, and by virtue of the breath of young children learning Torah in their rabbi’s classroom. (Talmud, Shabbat 119b)
The parsha of nedarim (vows) teaches us the power of speech, that one’s words are able to create realities. With our words, we can transform a mundane head of cattle into a "korban" or holy sacrifice. According to Maimonedes, if someone were to come thereafter and affix this animal to a plough along with an animal that is not in the category of "hekdesh" (Temple property) - he would be transgressing the prohibition of "Kila’im" (forbidden combinations) - having bound a non-Hekdesh animal with one dedicated to Hekdesh).
Despite the fact that our words can create realities, these changes are not always perceptible. Nevertheless, we must not say that no change has been effected - simply because we cannot appreciate it with our senses! Science has revealed many new realities and facts, forces that have a tremendous impact on our world, phenomena that simply cannot be "absorbed" by our five senses. In fact, It often the most impressive, powerful forces that cannot be absorbed by the senses because of the limitations of the latter.
Our sages maintain that evil gossip is equivalent, on its own, to the three cardinal sins of murder, idolatry and sexual immorality. (Talmud, Arachin 15b) The reason for this is that speech has a real, substantive impact on the world. Evil talk brings about destruction in the world, just as do the three cardinal sins. From the parsha of vows we learn - from one perspective - the need to refrain from forbidden talk; even though we don’t sense it, it has the potential to bring great harm to the world. From another perspective, we learn about the power of holy speech, that words that have the ability to positively affect the world, to fill it with blessing.