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Word Power


Matot-Masay (Numbers 30-36 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel saying: 'This is the thing that God has commanded: If a man takes a vow to God 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)

According to Jewish law, this passage means that if someone says, for example, "Apples should be forbidden to me in the same manner that other objects are forbidden." Then, apples are now just as forbidden to him as pork; the person who transgresses against such a vow is committing a sin of the same gravity as someone who eats pork, and is liable to the same type of punishment.

Such a vow has such great strength that it even overpowers the obligation to perform the commandments; thus if phrased correctly, a vow against sitting in tents will make it a forbidden act to sit in a tent even on Succot, and a person who made such a vow is released from the commandment to sit in the Succah.

Thus words do not simply create a moral obligation to make them true. We are not talking about the obligation to keep one's promises. Words have the power to alter reality itself. The object of a vow becomes a forbidden substance just like pork. What is more, this affects not only the person who issued these words but other people as well.

A Jew has the power to transform ordinary objects into forbidden objects for other Jews by simply making a vow.

Thus according to Jewish law, I have the power to transform my apples into forbidden objects for other Jews by simply making a vow that they shouldn't eat them.

From where do words derive such great power? The common perception about the power of words that prevails in the world is exemplified by such statements as: "words are cheap," "sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me"; not many subscribe to the notion "that the pen is mightier than the sword."


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Let's begin at the beginning. God created the world with words. The world was created with ten speeches (Avos, 5,1).

According to Jewish thought, these speeches are not to be regarded as past events; it is these speeches that still provide the basic backbone of existence. The words of God issued at creation are still out there; existence continues only because the words were never withdrawn.

Our conception of reality is a backward one. Because we exist on the other side of these words which hang suspended between us and God, we perceive our reality as being grounded in the corporeal. Thus, to us, bodies are the most substantial reality, words are more abstract, and God is entirely abstract. If we were looking at the situation from the other side and allowed our imagination to place us in God's chair, as it were, things would appear exactly the opposite way around. Existence is grounded in the Divinity itself, words are more abstract, and corporeal existence is the ultimate degree of abstraction.

Now let us move on to ourselves, the inner world of man.

And the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life; and man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

Onkolos translates this as: "and man became a speaking being." Thus the breath of God in man's nostrils, his "soul of life," makes its outward impact in man's ability to use words and to speak.

Just like the words of God, His creation speeches, are the interface between God and the corporeal universe, so also in the case of man, the words that man speaks are the interface between his soul and his corporeal reality.

Rashi tell us:

Man spans in his own being both the highest levels of being and the lowest; that is how creation is in balance. The first day was shared between the two levels as God created the heavens and the earth. The second day was devoted to the higher levels of being, as God fashioned the heavens. The third day was given over to arranging the dry land environment for the lower levels. The fourth day again went to the heavens as the sun, the moon and the stars were arranged. The fifth day was again given over to the earth and its wildlife. The sixth had to be equally divided to maintain the balance -- this was done through the creation of man whose soul is in the heavens while his body is on the earth.

The interface between the two parts of man is in man's power of speech and is expressed in his words. The content of his words are ideas which originate in the soul, but these ideas are wrapped in words that emerge from the body.

The locus of man's spirituality lies in his words, just as the focus of the spiritual power of the universe lies in the ten creation speeches.


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The Goan of Vilna explains how this spirit -- man's power of speech -- is the locus of man's essential being. For it is only in this area that man is conscious. Beneath this spirit are man's physical urges which are all subconscious.

(We do not consciously move the blood through our veins, or command our lungs to draw breath or our stomachs to digest.) Above this spirit is man's soul through which he is attached to God, the higher aspect of man's being of which he is also consciously unaware. In the middle, between these two areas of sub-consciousness, is man's spirit, where his thoughts that have been put into words and his emotions are located. This area is the only place where he is self-conscious.

Between the areas of sub-consciousness lies man's spirit, where his thoughts transformed into words are located.

Thus, the battles of life and its conflicts are all located here.

Man's soul attempts to pull him upwards so that the spiritual power in his words becomes entirely dedicated to the expression of his soul. In terms of the universe, this would amount to attaching man's spirit to the upper side of the interface of God's words, which hang suspended between the heavens and the earth.

The physical urges attempt to pull man down to their level so that the spiritual power of his words is entirely turned over to the satisfaction of physical desires. In terms of the universe this would amount to separating man's words from the words of God, and pulling them downwards to become mired in the corporeal universe.


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The "Sefer Hayzira," one of the oldest Midrashic/Kabbalistic works extant in Jewish literature, which some say was authored by Abraham himself, speaks about two covenants -- the covenant of the tongue and the covenant of circumcision (1,3).

Just as the covenant of circumcision dedicates the physical creative power to the service of God, the covenant of the tongue dedicates the spiritual creative power that is innate in man to the service of his soul.

In the same vein, The Torah speaks of several types of "foreskin," the section of the anatomy that is cut away during circumcision:

You shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart and no longer stiffen your neck (Deut. 10:16)

The Lord your God, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deut. 30:6)

Jewish thought relates the observance of these two covenants one to the other:

...hedged about with roses (Song of Songs 7:3) [means that] even when the fence consists only of roses they will not break through. As the Sadduci asked Rabbi Kahane, "You say that a man can stay alone with his wife during the time when he is not permitted to have relations with her. Is it possible to maintain a smoldering fire in a wad of cotton without having it burst into flames?" Rabbi Kahane answered him, "The Torah itself testifies about us -- 'hedged about with roses' -- even when the fence is no more than a row of roses it is sufficient to restrain us." When the words of the Torah are the words of the human spirit, this fence of roses is still sufficient to restrain the Jew. (Sanhedrin 37a)


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At this point we should be ready to grapple with the underlying concept that provides the rationale for the sanctity of vows.

Rabbenu Yona, in his famous work "The Gates of Repentance," compares the mouth of the person who guards his tongue to a Holy Chalice in the Temple. The vessels in the Temple had to be sanctified before they could be employed in the offering of the sacrifices. An ordinary cup could not be used. All Temple vessels had to be sanctified and ritually pure and sometimes even anointed to prepare them for use.

The image is clear. Holy words must be contained in holy vessels.

The holiest activities of Torah observance, the study of Torah, and the reciting of prayers, involve speaking words. These words are the offerings of man's spirit through which he connects himself with the interface of God's holy words that hang suspended above the heavens to give being to the universe. It is the words of Torah and prayer that connect man's spirit to God.

Man's mouth is a sanctified chalice as long as it is uncontaminated by unholy words.

But, since holy words can only be offered in holy vessels, we get the commandments against negative forms of speech, especially lashon hara. Man's mouth is a sanctified chalice as long as it is uncontaminated by unholy words. The sanctified mouth cannot tolerate words uttered from hatred and anger, words of disharmony, words that express gross desires.

When the mouth is tainted by such words, it loses its sanctity, and is no longer considered a holy vessel. Any words that issue from it acquire a tinge of its negative taint. Even the words of Torah and prayer fail to be effective when they become tainted. They cannot fly upwards to the interface of God's creation speeches, because the negative taint lent them by the "dirty" vessel they issue from renders them unfit to connect.

Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, the author of the Zohar, expressed this thought beautifully:

If I had been present at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given to Israel, I would have asked God to recreate people so that they had two mouths: one for the expression of the holy words of Torah and prayer, and a second mouth for other matters. But then I reconsidered: if so much lashon hora can issue from one mouth, imagine how much would issue from two. (Yerushalmi, Brochot, 2)


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Looking at the positive side of the same equation, the rule in Torah matters dictates that the force of light is always greater than the force of darkness. When the words that issue from it are not tainted, than the mouth is a holy vessel.

The holy vessels in the Temple had the power to sanctify whatever was poured into them. Even non-holy substances were transformed to become holy in all respects when they were contained in a holy vessel. Similarly, when the mouth is a holy vessel, all the words that issue from it are automatically sanctified, and connect with God's creation words that are the source of being.

But as they connect with the creation speeches, they transform the substantive universe that these words put into being. Holy words have the power to transform their subjects into holy objects. Hence the sanctity of vows.

Rabbi Chaim of Voloz'hin employs this analogy to explain the power of the words of Torah and prayer as well. We are accustomed to think that when we pray, we persuade God to alter the universe with His own powers; our prayers themselves have no effect in themselves other than to persuade God. But Rabbi Chaim explains that this is a mistaken impression. Just as God created the universe with words, whatever change takes place in this universe also comes about through words. When our prayers consist of holy words that are able to connect with God's creation speeches, God takes the words of our prayers themselves and alters the universe into the shape indicated by the prayers.

The Zohar writes repeatedly that God looked into the Torah when He created the world.

Torah words have even greater potency. The Zohar writes repeatedly that God looked into the Torah when He created the world. The creation words that God actually used which still hang suspended and afford us being, are Torah words. When new words of Torah are uttered by untainted human lips, the store of creation words available increases. These new words join with the old ones to create entire new universes. These new universes are considered man's creations not God's, for it is man's Torah words that were used to form them. These new worlds are man's real habitat otherwise known as the World-to-Come.

But in that case, vows should only be effective when they are uttered by untainted mouths. Yet Jewish law recognizes no such distinction. Any Jew that utters a vow creates a holy object thereby. How can this be?


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It is significant that this commandment was addressed to the heads of the tribes, although it affects everyone. The connection between people is through words. It is through words that we communicate with each other, and it is ultimately through the power of words that we are bound into communities. The heads of the tribes were very elevated people. They did not use their mouths at all except for holy matters. They were concerned with the community of Israel, holy by its very nature.

In a healthy community, the words that bind come from the community's highest levels rather than its lowest common denominator. It is the words of the heads of the tribes that the rest of the people use to speak with. As their words issue from the holiest of vessels, they retain their power no matter how often they are recycled.

The Book of Numbers represents the final words of the Torah whose origins are from God Himself.

This week's Torah portion is the last in the Book of Numbers. What remains is the book of Deuteronomy which consists of Moses's teachings that were subsequently incorporated to become part of the Torah through the Divine will. But Numbers represents the final words of the Torah whose origins are from God Himself. The fact that the law of vows is mentioned at this point conveys a powerful message.

The nation of Israel is leaving the desert, with its manna and its holy cloud, with its Moses and Aaron and Mount Sinai, and stepping down into a more ordinary existence. In the desert maintaining holiness was no great problem. In such a miraculous environment who could help being holy. In the "real" world that we ordinarily inhabit, finding holiness is much more difficult. The message conveyed by God at the end of the Book of Numbers is addressed to this very dilemma. The secret of maintaining a holy human environment is to fill it with the special music of holy words.

When man's words are words of love, Torah and prayer, his every utterance transforms the ordinary world around him into a place of holiness.

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