"If a man makes a vow to HaShem or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he shall not violate his word… "
Tammuz 26, 5770/July 7, 2010
The book of Numbers chronicles the many tumultuous events that occurred during Israel’s forty year sojourn in the wilderness. It is worthwhile to note that each event was preceded or precipitated by the words uttered by one protagonist or another. Korach very skillfully chose his words with the intention of manipulating his fellow Israelites for the cynical purpose of self aggrandizement. By using his G-d given power of speech to try to lift himself up above others, he was justly rewarded with a deathless entombment deep within the bowels of the earth.
Bilaam, the heathen prophet, attempted with a persistence that otherwise might be deemed admirable, to use his power of speech in a grandiose ploy to manipulate G-d’s wrath against the children of Israel. For his pernicious efforts, he was killed in the very war which he himself masterminded.
The tribal heads of Israel allowed themselves and their brethren to be tripped up by their own words, as they spoke evil against the land of Israel. Their careless words testified to their lack of faith in G-d, lack of love for the land of Israel, and lack of trust in themselves. Their reward? They, and the entire generation that they ensnared were to die in the desert, never setting foot in the land that G-d had promised them.
Even Miriam, the prophetess, spoke ill of her brother Moshe, and was duly punished with a case of the leprous tzarat. Despite the fact that Miriam’s intentions were only for the betterment of Moshe, she too had to pay the price for her ill chosen words.
And, of course, Moshe himself was punished most poignantly for his own misappropriation of the gift of speech. First he hit the rock, when he was commanded by G-d to speak to the rock, and then he spoke harshly against Israel, calling his thirsty kinsmen "rebels."(ibid 20:10) Moshe, too, would never enter his beloved Israel.
It is only fitting that the final double Torah reading of the book of Numbers, Matot-Masei opens with the laws concerning any man or woman who utters a vow, or takes an oath. Our words cause and shape our actions and define who we truly are. Words spoken carelessly will in time catch up with us. We reap what we say. And we are in constant peril of being led astray by the words of others when we allow ourselves to fall under their influence.
Torah takes our words very seriously, and, this is to say, takes us very seriously. We are what we speak. The midnight exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, receiving Torah at Sinai, the building of the Tabernacle, and forty years in the wilderness later, and Torah’s message to us all, as we are perched upon the banks of the Jordan, moments from entering the land, is crystal clear: Measure your words. Your word is your bond. Your word is sacred.
Entering the land of Israel marks the fulfillment of G-d’s word, His promise to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Now is the time for us to keep our word: To settle that same land, to love and to nurture it. To do all this, and to build the Holy Temple is not merely to fulfill G-d’s aspirations for each of us. It is to keep our word with G-d, to state unequivocally that we are worthy of the gift of speech with which he bequeathed us, worthy of His love, worthy of being called G-d’s children.