For the week ending 27 July 2019 / 24 Tammuz 5779

Parshat Matot

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Moshe teaches the rules and restrictions governing oaths and vows, especially the role of a husband or father in either upholding or annulling a vow. Bnei Yisrael wage war against Midian. They kill the five Midianite kings, all the males and Bilaam. Moshe is upset that women were taken captive. They were catalysts for the immoral behavior of the Jewish People. He rebukes the officers. The spoils of war are counted and apportioned. The commanding officers report to Moshe that there was not one casualty among Bnei Yisrael. They bring an offering that is taken by Moshe and Elazar and placed in the Ohel Mo'ed (Tent of Meeting).

The Tribes of Gad and Reuven, who own large quantities of livestock, petition Moshe to allow them to remain east of the Jordan and not enter the Land of Israel. They explain that the land east of the Jordan is quite suitable grazing land for their livestock. Moshe's initial response is that this request will discourage the rest of Bnei Yisrael, and that it is akin to the sin of the spies. They assure Moshe that they will first help conquer Israel, and only then will they go back to their homes on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Moshe grants their request on condition that they uphold their part of the deal.


Another Hundred Dollar Bill

“If a man takes a vow to G-d...” (30:3)

A tramp is standing by the side of the road. A big Rolls-Royce pulls up right next to him. One of the tinted windows in the back rolls down with a soft electronic purr, coming to rest at the end of its travel with a reassuring clunk. A hand in a white cotton glove emerges from the car holding a crisp new $100 bill. A voice emanates from the car. “It’s for you,” says the voice. The tramp gazes at the gloved hand in disbelief. “What?” The tramp looks around to make sure no one is standing behind him. “Are you speaking to me?” says the tramp. “Here, take the money!” Gingerly, he approaches the car, half-expecting that this is some kind of practical joke, and the money and the car will vanish in a second. He extends his hand and ever so slowly grasps the note. As soon as his fingers clutch the bill securely, the hand retracts into the car. The window rises with a soft purr and the Rolls-Royce speeds into the distance. The tramp stands transfixed to the spot, beaming from ear to ear with equal amounts of incredulity and joy.

The next day the tramp is standing in the same spot. The same Rolls-Royce draws up next to him. Again, one of the tinted windows in the back rolls down with a soft electronic purr. The same white-gloved hand emerges from the car holding another crisp $100 bill. The tramp cannot believe his luck. Again he extends his hand and slowly grasps the note. And as soon as his fingers clutch the bill the hand retracts into the car and the Rolls-Royce speeds into the distance. Again the tramp is overjoyed. But maybe not quite as overjoyed as the previous day.

The next day the same thing happens, and the next and the next and the next...

This goes on for about a month. One day, the Rolls-Royce draws up at the lights. This time, however, nothing happens. After a few seconds the tramp knocks on the glass, but it stays firmly closed. So he knocks harder and then starts to shout, “Where’s my hundred dollars?”

The Midrash quotes the line from our parsha and comments on it: “If a man takes a vow to G-d...” — a man doesn’t know the length of his allotted time in this world. What is the connection between “If a man takes a vow to G-d...” and knowing how long we have to live in this world?

The Talmud (Nedarim 10) says that when a person makes a vow to bring an offering to G-d, he shouldn’t say, “To G-d, an offering.” Rather, he should say, “An offering to G-d.” The reason is that maybe he will utter G-d’s ineffable name “To G-d and not complete the sentence by saying “an offering.” It will thus transpire that he uttered G-d’s name in vain. The commentators explain that the Talmud is referring here to a situation where the person might die before he is able to complete the sentence. This is the meaning of the Midrash. Since a person does not know when his time is up he should be careful how he phrases a vow.

At first sight one might think that the Talmud is preoccupied with an extremely remote case. I mean, how many people drop dead in mid-sentence just when they happen to be in the middle of making a vow?

Most of us look at our lives as though we deserve to live. We may not say it, but we feel that way. That’s why we complain against G-d when people die ‘prematurely.’ If we looked at every moment we breathe in this world as yet another hundred-dollar bill, maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to complain when G-d takes back something that was a free handout in the first place. When we see every second as a separate and new gift, we do not assume that necessarily we will be given the gift to complete even the sentence that we have started to speak.

  • Sources: Nachal Kedumim and Kedushas Levi in Mayana shel Torah

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