Keeping One’s Word and Gratitude Brings a Person Closer to G-d
It is written, “Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying: ‘…If a man takes a vow to the L-RD or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word. According to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do’ ” (Numbers 30:2-3).
The apparent redundancy (“he shall not desecrate his word” and “According to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do”) must be examined. Why the text juxtaposes the heads of the tribes with vows and oaths, and why this parsha was spoken precisely to the heads of the tribes, should also be examined.
We may say that the Torah alludes to two ways that allow a Jew to increasingly attach himself to his Creator. The first way consists of putting all his focus into carrying out everything that he says and promises, without any compromising or beating around the bush, but rather with determination, and above all to do so in things that deal with spiritual life. If a desire arouses itself to make a vow or to perform a good deed, he should do so! The Torah obligates a person to keep his commitments, even after that inner spark has cooled. This action will certainly provoke other good deeds, for “one mitzvah brings about another” (Perkei Avoth 4:2), and in this way we can powerfully attach ourselves to the Creator.
The word nedar (“vow”) has the same numerical value (with the kollel) as haNer (“the lamp”), as it is said, “A man’s soul is the lamp of the L-RD” (Proverbs 20:27). This means that if a man, who is different than an animal in that he is gifted with divine speech, makes a vow, this word definitely comes from the depths of his soul, which is a part of divinity. It is the soul that demands this vow of a man, in order to be able to elevate itself evermore in the paths of G-d and the performance of the mitzvot, which are called “lamps”. As it is said, “For a mitzvah [commandment] is a lamp and the Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23).
This is why “he shall not desecrate his word.” If the soul demands that the body elevate and sanctify itself, then he cannot desecrate (-(*) his word; he must not make something profane (0*-&() of his words (Sifri Matot 30:3). On the contrary, “According to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do.” By this he will merit reaching very lofty spiritual levels and know his Creator.
Why is this parsha said precisely to the heads of the tribes? In general these were “all distinguished men” (see Numbers 13:3), who were an example for the people. This is why the Torah commands that they watch their words with the greatest of care and that they perform every word that comes out of their mouth (even if it is not in the form of a vow), in order to avoid at all costs that from their conduct others learn to make promises without keeping them. In fact we generally listen to and spread the words of the tribal heads, which is why they should be extremely careful to observe what they say in order to be matzdikei harabim (“those who justify the many”) and mekadeshei hauma (“those who sanctify the people”) – expressions that have the same numerical value as rashei (“heads”) – and to carefully avoid causing the opposite the occur.
In addition, the word nedar (“vow”) has the same numerical value as ba’al ayin tova (“master of the good eye”), which is why the one who makes a vow “is good in the eyes of G-d and man.” This is the second path taught in our parsha for coming as close to the Creator as possible. It consists of gratitude. As the Sages have said concerning the verse that states, “Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites; afterwards you will be gathered to your people” (Numbers 31:2): “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, ‘Take vengeance’ – you personally! Yet he sent agents, as it said: ‘Moses sent them’ [v.6]! This is because having lived a longtime in Midian, he thought that it was not right to cause harm to the land that had done him good, in accordance with the saying, ‘Into the well from which you drank, do not cast a stone’ ” (Bamidbar Rabba 22:4).
These are apparently very surprising remarks, and they raise the following questions:
1. What did Moses gain in sending others instead of going himself? Did the Sages not say that a person’s messenger is the same as the person himself (Berachot 34b)?
2. How did Moses think that he could modify the command of the Holy One, blessed be He, which was to “take vengeance”? And what gratitude should one have towards the wicked, who almost brought about the destruction of the Jewish people?
3. We should also wonder about another modification to G-d’s command. Moses was told, “Take vengeance for the Children of Israel” (Numbers 31:2), yet Moses spoke to them of “the L-RD’s vengeance” (v.3).
4. We should also understand what the Sages said concerning the passage, “Moses, Elazar the Kohen, and all the leaders of the assembly went out to meet them outside the camp” (v.18), meaning that the reason that they left was because they saw some of the young of Israel who wanted to seize the spoils of the campaign (Sifri 42). This implies that the sole reason for their departure was the war booty that had been brought back, among these being the women of Midian. Moses reprimanded them severely for this, and it seems that without the spoils of war, he would not have gone out to meet them. Why is this so? Did they not otherwise deserve a proper reception? After all, they had killed a people that had nearly caused their destruction. Had they not, through this action, corrected the sins of the past?
5. Another difficulty is why the Children of Israel let the Midianite women live, since the main reason for taking vengeance on them was because they had caused the Children of Israel to sin. Besides the fact that they recognized these women, the Sages have said that they knew which Midianite woman had caused which Israelite man to sin (Yalkut Shimoni 785). Now they were all upright and righteous (Sifri 42).
This passage shows us the extreme importance of gratitude, in the spirit of the adage: “Into the well from which you drank, do not cast a stone,” even if its waters are extremely murky. Of course, all this is only valid if the Holy One, blessed be He, is not opposed to such a stance, for when He commands otherwise, it is quite obvious that His orders must be expressly carried out.
And yet despite Moses’ great desire to combat and exterminate the enemies of G-d, particularly given the fact that G-d Himself had given him the order, in his heart Moses doubted whether he could carry out this task with the desired perfection. He doubted because of the gratitude that he had felt for the Midianites in the past. In fact, he had not struck the sea (which has no soul and which does not speak) even while knowing that striking it would have greatly helped the Children of Israel. He acted to sanctify the Name of G-d with regards to Pharaoh and his servants, as the Sages have explained on the verse that states, “Say to Aaron” (Exodus 7:19): “The river had protected Moses when he had been thrown into it. It was not struck by him – not for the plague of blood, nor for the plague of frogs – but rather by Aaron” (Shemot Rabba 9). This profound gratitude, which was rooted in Moses’ heart, even towards his enemies, was part of Moses’ greatness. Moreover, he feared that the nations would accuse him of ingratitude.
Yet on the other hand, Moses knew that in the end the enemies of G-d had to be destroyed, which is why he found a right and just way to accomplish this task. He entrusted it to other people who had no personal feelings in the matter and who were not motivated by any feelings of gratitude. And to be certain that this vengeance would be properly exercised to the utmost, Moses put Pinchas the son of Elazar in charge, whose immense zeal had already been mentioned by the Torah, as it is written, “he zealously avenged Me” (Numbers 25:11).
We shall now return to the expression used by G-d: “Take vengeance for the Children of Israel.” In repeating this command to the Children of Israel, Moses used the expression “the L-RD’s vengeance,” which shows us that when we incite someone to sin, we do so with the express purpose of irritating G-d, which is why someone who instigates sin is called the enemy of G-d. At that moment, we should not assign the sin to the guilt of a man who has not overcome the test. By nature, such a man wanted to accomplish G-d’s commands, but he only acted otherwise because of the suffering that he endured. This is why Moses modified G-d’s expression and called the Midianites the enemies of G-d, knowing they had pushed the Children of Israel to sin, and that, according to the Sages, whoever hates Israel hates G-d.
For His part, the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “Take vengeance for the Children of Israel” because He wanted to avenge them for the suffering they had experienced, meaning that because of the Midianites, 24,000 of the Children of Israel had died (Numbers 25:9). They came very close to being exterminated, yet when a man sins it creates great pain for the Holy One, blessed be He, because of the imperfection that this sin brings about in all the worlds (Zohar III:122a), and which will perhaps only be repaired after the disappearance of the instigators. He therefore asked Moses to annihilate them.
As for Moses, he was careful to modify G-d’s expression, for he always defended the Children of Israel and devoted himself to them at all times (Tanhuma Beracha 1). In this way, for the generations to come, when they would fight against those that would make them sin, this war would be called “the L-RD’s vengeance,” to the point that would be no accusations lodged against the Children of Israel, nor any favorable recollection for the instigators. It would already be the vengeance of G-d, through the power of which the sin would be erased forever.
And if we are correct with regards to this, let us now explain why the Children of Israel allowed the women to live (women who had caused them to sin), whereas they were the only reason for this war of vengeance. One must see in this the greatness of the Children of Israel, who even when they encountered these women who had made them sin before, far from touching them, they conquered their feelings and brought them before Moses so that he could pronounce what was to be done with them. In obeying Moses without question, they repaired their sin and showed that they had completely repented (Sanhedrin 82a), demonstrating their righteousness in public.
By this act, Moses also rectified his weakness and proved his firmness in displaying his anger towards them. He had kept quiet in the face of Zimri’s act, as the Sages have said on the passage, “They were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of meeting” (Numbers 25:6), namely that the Halachah had escaped Moses and it was Pinchas who had come to remind him by saying, “I received from you [the teaching] that anyone having relations with a gentile woman is to be executed by the zealous” (Rashi on Numbers 25:7). Here, however, it was Moses who became angry and explained that they had to kill these women, while Pinchas kept silent. In condemning to death all those who had known a man, Moses repaired this imperfection (Sanhedrin 82a).
There remains one question concerning what the Sages said on the statement, “Elazar the Kohen said…” (Numbers 31:21): “Moses had let himself be taken by anger [since it is written, “Moses was angry”] which involved a fault, and the Halachah escaped him” (Pesachim 66b). This is difficult to understand insofar as Moses’ anger was motivated by a love of Heaven. In such a case, why was he punished at that time? It was because accusation and Divine wrath were awakened against him at that precise moment. If he showed himself capable of facing up to the all the people and give them a tongue-lashing, why didn’t he do as much in the case of Zimri, when his anger would have been directed only against the tribe of Shimon?
In reality, Moses had no intention whatsoever of going to meet the Children of Israel if they had not brought back the foreign women with them. That would have impaired the gratitude that he felt for Midian, without mentioning the fact that Moses would have filled the men’s hearts with pride if they had seen Moses himself coming to meet them at their return. The proof that his anger stemmed from their failure to destroy G-d’s enemies, as he had ordered, comes precisely from the fact that he only went out to meet them because of these women that they let live.
Yet for their part, the Children of Israel and Pinchas had only saved the women in order to show their loyalty to Moses and his directives. The Sages testify that they were not suspect of having had forbidden relations with them, nor of having stolen spoils of war, which means that they were absolutely righteous. If this had not been the case, the wrath directed against them would have been much greater.