Directing God (Matot)
The best time for you to hold your tongue is the time you feel you must say something or bust. -Josh Billings
The beginning of the Torah reading of Matot introduces us to the laws of vows. In Jewish law, the words we use have importance. We must keep our word. We can’t say one thing and then do another, or not keep our word. Our word is truly our bond. The implications become even more severe when we phrase our statements as vows.
The Berdichever focuses on the language of the verse and specifically the key verb, “Yachel.” The verse can be read as follows:
“When a man vows a vow unto God or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not “Yachel” his word; he shall do according to all that came out of his mouth.” -Numbers 30:3
The classic translators interpret Yachel as “break”, meaning he shall not break his word, and that works well with the overall meaning of the verse. The Berdichever interprets according to the deeper origin of the verb, “Chulin”, meaning secular or profane. That would give us a sharper reading of “he shall not profane his word.” Don’t violate, defile, degrade, disrespect the words that come out of your mouth.
The Berdichever continues that whoever doesn’t want to profane his words is careful to adjust and correct every word that comes out of his mouth, to make sure that it is proper and that he can stand by it. He calls this “guarding of the covenant of the tongue.”
According to the Berdichever, guarding of the covenant of the tongue, namely watching what we say and keeping our word, bestows an incredible power upon its practitioner and is hinted to by the name of this Torah reading, Matot. Matot in the normal context means “tribes.” The verse is directed to the heads of the tribes of Israel. However, “Matot” also alludes to the concept of “leaning,” “turning,” or “directing” (“lehatot”).
The power alluded to in Matot, is that a guardian of the covenant of the tongue is bequeathed with the ability to somehow influence and direct God. A person of their word, a person who is careful with what they say can affect God’s decrees. They have the wherewithal to turn, to direct God’s stern decrees of justice to merciful results.
May we watch what we say, may we be people of our word and may we see strict justice converted into mercy.