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Thought, Speech and Action

Matot-Masay (Numbers 30-36 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn


Parshat Matot begins with Moshe speaking to the leaders. The familiar introduction to legal sections such as this, "and God spoke to Moshe saying..." is lacking: God's speech is not recorded in the text, rather Moshe speaks. He addresses the "rashei hamatot". The word matot, which is also used to describe the staffs used by the tribal leaders, often refers to the tribes themselves:

And Moshe spoke to the chiefs of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying, "This is the thing which God has commanded." (Bamidbar 30:2)

The subject of Moshe's speech is vows: man is obligated by the words which he utters.

If a man vows a vow to God, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Bamidbar 30:3)

It is specifically the leaders who are addressed; Rashi explains that this is due to the active role the leaders take in the laws of vows, specifically in the dissolution of vows.


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Three topics are presented in these few short verses: first, the general concept of the vow; second, the cancelation or dissolution of the vow; and third, an important concept that is introduced by the void of Divine speech. It is this absence of God's Word, this anomalous backdrop to the discussion of vows, that deserves our attention.

Speech is a defining human quality. The ability to articulate our thoughts into specific words is what sets us apart from the animals. Man is thus obligated by his words in a type of a social contract, a necessary institution for a cohesive society. In fact, the theme of the gravity and sanctity of human speech carries through both of the parshiot we read this week, Matot and Masei.

In Parshat Masei we find what is, in the eyes of the Mishna, the archetype for all verbal agreements. As the Israelites stand on the threshold of the Land of Israel, some express interest in remaining east of the Jordan when the Land is ultimately apportioned:

And the sons of Reuven and the sons of Gad had a very great multitude of cattle; and when they saw the land of Ya'azer, and the land of Gilad, that, behold, the place was a place for cattle. The sons of Gad and the sons of Reuven came and spoke to Moshe, and to Elazar the Kohen, and to the princes of the congregation, saying: Atarot, and Dibon, and Ya'azer, and Nimrah, and Heshbon, and El'aleh, and Shevam, and Nevo, and Be'on. The country which God struck before the Congregation of Israel, is a land for cattle, and your servants have cattle. Therefore, said they, if we have found grace in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession, and bring us not over the Jordan. (Bamidbar 32:1- 5)

Moshe is taken aback by their words. He hears echoes of a previous episode where destructive words1 had devastating impact, and believes these "renegade" tribes to be spiritual descendents of the spies who rejected the Land of Israel. Significantly, it is not only the rejection of Israel that Moshe addresses; rather, he focuses on the demoralizing impact of the words the spies had used:

And Moshe said to the sons of Gad and to the sons of Reuven, Shall your brothers go to war, and shall you sit here? (K) And why do you discourage the heart of the People of Israel from going over to the land which God has given them? Thus did your fathers, when I sent them from Kadesh-Barnea to see the Land. For when they went up to the valley of Eshkol, and saw the Land, they discouraged the heart of the People of Israel, that they should not go into the Land which God had given them. And God's anger was kindled on that day, and He swore, saying, "Surely none of the men who came out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the Land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Yaakov; because they have not wholly followed me. Save Calev the son of Yefunneh the Kenazite, and Yehoshua the son of Nun; for they have wholly followed God." And God's anger was kindled against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of God was consumed. And, behold, you are risen in your fathers' stead, an increase of sinful men, to increase still more the fierce anger of God toward Israel. For if you turn away from Him, He will yet again leave them in the wilderness; and you shall destroy all this People. Bamidbar (32:6-15)

These delegation members try to allay Moshe's fears, and offer to join the war effort, shoulder to shoulder with their brethren. In fact, they offer to place themselves on the front lines, leading the fighters as the first force in battle, and to return to their flocks and their families only when the task is complete.

And they came near to him, and said, 'We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones. But we ourselves will go ready armed before the People of Israel, until we have brought them to their place; and our little ones shall live in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the Land. We will not return to our houses, until the People of Israel have inherited every man his inheritance. For we will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan, and beyond, because our inheritance has fallen to us on this east side of the Jordan. (Bamidbar 32:16-19)

Moshe responds to their request in the presence of the leaders of the tribes (notably, referred to as "matot" once again), and the agreement is solidified:

So concerning them Moshe commanded Elazar the Kohen, and Yehoshua the son of Nun, and the chief fathers of the tribes of the Children of Israel. And Moshe said to them, "If the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuven will pass with you over the Jordan, every man armed to battle, before God, and the land shall be conquered before you; then you shall give them the land of Gil'ad for a possession. But if they will not pass over with you armed, they shall have possessions among you in the land of Canaan." And the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuven answered, saying, 'As God has said to your servants, so will we do.' (Bamidbar 32:28-31)

Relating to this verbal agreement, the Mishna teaches:

R. Meir said: every stipulation which is not like that of the children of Gad and the children of Reuven is not a [valid] stipulation. (Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 61a)


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The power of words is a major theme in both Matot and Mas'ay, but the fundamental question is not expressly addressed: Why should words have such power, power which transcends the realm of mere social contact or obligation? Speech is not merely a defining human quality, it is also viewed in the Jewish tradition as the manifestation of the Divine breath which resonates within man. When God created man, he breathed into him a living soul - described literally as 'Divine breath'. As a result, man becomes a living being:

And the Almighty God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Bereishit 2:7)

An ancient tradition, recorded by Unkolus, translates the words nefesh chaya ("living soul") as "speaking spirit".

Taking one step even further back in history, in an even longer view of our entire existence, we note that all of creation results from Divine speech: 2

And God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light. (Bereishit 1:3)

Surely, Creation could have come about in other ways; God, who possess all powers and who stands above our own limited dimensions of time, space and matter, could have created without speech. Surely, all of creation could have been the result of a Divine thought, a Divine wish; instead, a very human tool - speech - was utilized.3 It is perhaps easy to overlook this very basic, underlying truth: Because God is beyond the parameters of human experience, for God, thought, speech and action are all the same. "Speech" is just as much an anthropomorphism as "God's outstretched hand": while we need barely remind ourselves that God has no hand, it is much more subtle to point out that God has no larynx, throat or lips. When we read that God "speaks", we should interpret this as God's 'causing sound to be heard'; this, too, is anthropomorphism.4 Human speech, then, should never be random. When man speaks, he should be aware that he is using a tool which God purposely and specifically chose to use in the very act of creation. And in the same way that Divine speech and action are the same, when man speaks, he should be extremely fastidious in keeping his word, in an attempt to be as "godly" as he can be. Allowing a breach between one's words and one's deeds is antithetical to our overall ambition to emulate God.

Different realms within Judaism emphasize different elements of this continuum of speech and action. At times, thought or intent is the critical factor; in other situations, actions speak louder than words, and in other cases, speech is the critical element.5 Certain laws combine two of the three elements: Marriage requires both action and words, and the witnesses under the marital canopy attest to these two elements alone. The thoughts or intentions of the groom are not relevant to the contract or the change of status it affects: If at any subsequent time the groom informs the court that in fact he did not intend to marry his bride, his undetected intentions are overridden by his words and actions.

The laws of Shabbat are a quintessential expression of this continuum: Shabbat commemorates God's creation of our universe through speech; there is no gap between Divine thought, speech and action. However, when these concepts are translated into human terms, the gap is created. Thus, the desecration of any law of Shabbat occurs when action6 and thought come into line: only purposeful, thoughtful, creative action - melechet machshevet - is forbidden on Shabbat.7 Any unintended result, which is an expression of that gap between thought and implementation that is part and parcel of the human condition, is irrelevant. Any passing thought which has no physical result, another symptom of human limitations, is similarly irrelevant. God's speech is an anthropomorphic expression of perfect thought, perfect action; man's words are often hollow, his intention often confused or uninformed, his actions often imperfect.

The sacrifices offered in the Beit HaMikdash required both thought and action; when these sacrifices were replaced by prayers, the focus shifted to a combination of thoughts and words, of intentions and speech.

In this context, we return to the topic of vows. A vow links words and action in a new way: It binds today's speech with tomorrow's action. This is explained concisely by R. Zvi Elimelech Shapira (1783-1841): A person does not feel tomorrow's evil inclination today. Often, a person knows what they should do, or what they would like to do, and a vow helps them to overcome the human gap between thought and action. When one is unable to reach their intended goal today, they bind themselves to their ability in the future, which is as yet untainted by weakness or temptation. An everyday example is the person who knows he should start a diet; today, he is confounded by today's yetzer hara, and declares, "Tomorrow I will begin." The vow helps defeat the yetzer hara of tomorrow before it rears its seductive head.8

By using words, which are themselves a Divine tool, man can bring God into the situation, make God an ally; hopefully, that will spiritually fortify the person and provide the strength needed to succeed. Perhaps this is what Rabbenu Bachya had in mind when he taught that etymologically the word "neder" (vow) is related to the word "dira" (abode): Whoever makes a neder is making a home for God." 9 In more modern parlance, we might say that a person who makes a proper vow "lets God in"' or "creates a space" within his own life for God's involvement. This teaching is particularly insightful, and is borne out by the fact that the first vow recorded in the Torah is Yaakov's vow to build a House for God.

And Yaakov vowed a vow, saying, 'If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and a garment to wear, so that I come back to my father's house in peace; then shall the Almighty be my God. And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house; and of all that You shall give me I will surely give the tenth to You. (Bereishit 28:20- 22)


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If a vow is so powerful, if, in Divine emulation, it links words and actions, if it brings God into the equation as a party to the personal future of the individual making the vow, how can a vow be rescinded? It now seems somewhat incongruous that this entire section of laws is taught to the leaders of the tribes who are given the power to nullify vows.

In fact, the entire legal corpus regarding vows is cut of this very cloth: The Mishna points out that there are vast differences in the scriptural treatment of different laws. Certain subjects enjoy extensive scriptural discussion, detailed transmission in the Written Torah. On the other hand, other topics are given rather terse treatment in the text of the Torah, and the bulk of information is retained and transmitted through the Oral Law. In the case of vows, the entire legal basis is formulated in the words of the sages - the Oral Tradition. This is particularly appropriate:

[The laws concerning] the dissolution of vows hover in the air and have no (scripture) to rest on. The laws concerning Shabbat, festal-offerings, and acts of trespass are as mountains hanging by a hair, for they have scant scriptural basis but many laws. [The laws concerning] civil cases and [Temple] services, Levitical purity and impurity, and the forbidden relations have what to rest on, and they are included in the body of the Torah. Mishna Chagiga 1:8 (Talmud Bavli Chagiga 10a)

A vow is annulled if the tribal leaders (or the rabbinic authorities) can determine that at the time the vow was uttered, the thoughts of the individual were not in complete correlation with the words spoken. At times, the gap between thought and speech only becomes apparent later on, and the court is empowered to ask: "If you would have thought then what you know now, would you have made the vow?" If the answer is "no," the vow may be cancelled. In other words, for a vow to have significance, it must link thought, speech and action that are in precise correlation. If the elements do not align - if the thoughts behind the words were not complete, the vow may be nullified.

The underlying principle reflects the impact thoughts can have on actions. Herein lies another connection with this week's parsha: Two of the tribes, Reuven and Gad, wanted to remain outside the boundaries of the Promised Land, on the eastern side of the Jordan. And yet, when the arrangement is finally solidified, half of the tribe of Menashe is included, despite the fact that they were not represented in the original delegation that approached Moshe.

The Arizal had a unique way of understanding why these 2 1/2 tribes remained outside the Land of Israel, and it has everything to do with the gap we have been discussing, the dissonance between thought and action:

Reuven10 was conceived in this gap, as it were: Yaakov thought that he was with Rachel, but in fact "behold, she was Leah." 11 The Ari explains that the breach that was created between thought and action impacted Reuven12 and his descendents. He further posits that Gad, the first child borne by Zilpa, was conceived in similar circumstances: Rachel, desperate for offspring, insists that Yaakov be intimate with Bilha, and Yaakov acquiesces. Leah then switches her own maidservant, Zilpa, for herself: The text has no record of Yaakov's acquiescence to take Zilpa; for that matter, there is no record that Leah suggested this arrangement to Yaakov. This leads the Ari to conclude that Leah devised and executed her own plot to have Zilpa take her place. Gad was born of this union, clouded by misintent.

And when Rachel saw that she bore Yaakov no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said to Yaakov, "Give me children, or else I die." And Yaakov's anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, "Am I in God's place, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?" And she said, "Behold my maid Bilhah, go in to her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her." And she gave him Bilhah her maidservant to wife; and Yaakov went in to her. And Bilhah conceived, and bore Yaakov a son. And Rachel said, "God has judged me, and has also heard my voice, and has given me a son; therefore she called his name Dan." And Bilhah Rachel's maid conceived again, and bore Yaakov a second son. And Rachel said, "With great wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed," and she called his name Naphtali. When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing, she took Zilpah her maid, and gave her for a wife to Yaakov. And Zilpah, Leah's maid, bore Yaakov a son. (K) And Leah said, "Fortune has come," and she called his name Gad. (Bereishit 30:1-11)

And what of the half of the tribe of Menashe that became a party to the arrangement? The Ari reminds us that Menashe was the son of Yosef and Osnat; according to rabbinic tradition, Osnat was the daughter born of the rape13 of Dina by Shechem.14 According to this tradition, Dina became pregnant, but the daughter born was given up for adoption and found her way to Egypt.

The union of Yosef and Osnat was pure and holy; Yosef's thoughts and actions were pure, as were Osnat's, but 1/4 of the children born to them were impacted by the negative thoughts and deeds of Shechem.15 Yosef and Osnat had two children; 1/4 of their descendents, half of the tribe of Menashe, were impacted16 by Osnat's background. Ultimately, their place was in the diaspora with the tribes of Reuven and Gad.17

Thought and action should be unified. The purpose of a vow is to unite the inner thought, as expressed by words, with actions. When our thoughts become disconnected from our words, or words from actions, we are being dishonest. This dishonesty may or may not affect others in a particular instance, but it always impacts upon ourselves, upon our inner world. When we create consonance between our thoughts, words and actions, when we purposefully and steadfastly work to bring them closer together, we become more like God, whose words, thoughts and actions are one.



1. While the sin of the spies has various components, it was the dibba - the libelous talk, which sealed their fates.

2. This idea can also be found in the daily liturgy, where it succinctly says: "Blessed (He who) spoke and the world came into being.

3. See Avot 5:1 "with ten [divine] utterances was the world created."

4. See Rambam, Guide to the Perplexed, Book 1 chapter 41,55: Again, since we perform all these actions only by means of corporeal organs, we figuratively ascribe to God the organs of locomotion, as feet, and their soles; organs of hearing, seeing, and smelling, as ear, eye, and nose; organs and substance of speech, as mouth, tongue, and sound; organs for the performance of work, as hand, its fingers, its palm, and the arm. In short, these organs of the body are figuratively ascribed to God, who is above all imperfection, to express that He performs certain acts; and these acts are figuratively ascribed to Him to express that He possesses certain perfections different from those acts themselves. E.g., we say that He has eyes, ears, hands, a mouth, a tongue, to express that He sees, hears, acts, and speaks: but seeing and hearing are attributed to Him to indicate simply that He perceives. You thus find in Hebrew instances in which the perception of the one sense is named instead of the other; thus, "See the word of the Lord" (Jer. ii, 31), in the same meaning as "Hear the word of the Lord," for the sense of the phrase is, "Perceive what He says"; similarly the phrase, "See the smell of my son" (Gen. xxvii. 27) has the same meaning as "Smell the smell of my son," for it relates to the perception of the smell. In the same way are used the words, "And all the people saw the thunders and the lightnings" (Exod. xx. 15), although the passage also contains the description of a prophetical vision, as is well known and understood among our people. Action and speech are likewise figuratively applied to God, to express that a certain influence has emanated from Him, as win be explained (chap. lxv and chap. lxvi.).
Chapter 55: The two terms, when applied to God, can only have one of the two last-mentioned significations, viz., he wills and he desires, or he thinks, and there is no difference whether the divine thought became known to man by means of an actual voice, or by one of those kinds of inspiration which I shall explain further on (II. chap. xxxviii.). We must not suppose that in speaking God employed voice or sound. or that He has a soul in which the thoughts reside, and that these thoughts are things superadded to His essence; but we ascribe and attribute to Him thoughts in the same manner as we ascribe to Him any other attributes. The use of these words in the sense of will and desire, is based, as I have explained, on the homonymity of these terms. In addition they are figures borrowed from our common practices, as has been already pointed out. For we cannot, at a first glance, see how anything can be produced by a mere desire: we think that he who wishes to produce a thing, must perform a certain act, or command some one else to perform it. Therefore the command is figuratively ascribed to God when that takes place which He wishes, and we then say that He commanded that a certain thing should be accomplished. All this has its origin in our comparing the acts of God to our own acts, and also in the use of the term amar in the sense of "He desired," as we have already explained. The words "And He said," occurring in the account of the creation, signify "He wished," or "He desired." This has already been stated by other authors, and is well known. A proof for this, namely that the phrase "God said," in the first chapter of Genesis, must be taken in a figurative sense "He willed," and not in its literal meaning, is found in the circumstance that a command can only be given to a being which exists and is capable of receiving the command. Comp. "By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth" (Ps. xxxiii. 6). "His mouth," and "the breath of his mouth," are undoubtedly figurative expressions, and the same is the case with "His word" and "His speech." The meaning of the verse is therefore that they [the heavens and all their host] exist through His will and desire.

5. These three realms are often identified in rabbinic literature. For one example see Rav Yitzchak Karo, Toldot Yitzchak, regarding sacrifices, on Vayikra 1:2.

6. Speech is also significant on Shabbat, but on a different level: the Prophet Yishayahu (chapter 58:13,14) stresses the importance of avoiding prohibited speech, yet this prohibition is fundamentally different from the 39 acts which are considered desecrations of Shabbat on a Torah level. The Shla Hakadosh cites the Reishit Chochma and explains that there are thoughts, speech and actions relating to the forbidden activities, as well as thoughts, speech and actions related to the positive or proactive activities that should be performed on Shabbat, (prayer, Kiddush, etc.).

7. See Talmud Bavli Beitza 13b, Chagiga 10b, Bava Kama 26b, Sanhedrin 62b, Zevchim 47a, Kritut 19b.

8. See Yismach Moshe Parshat Matot.

9. Rabbenu Bachaya Bamidbar 30:3.

10. See Rashi Bereishit 49:3.

11. See Rashi Bereishit 29:25.

12. Shar Hapasukim Parshat Matot.

13. The Torah describes this incident as the "abuse" of Dina, which is generally understood as rape.

14. See Pirki Drebbi Eliezer chapter 35 (Horeb ed). This tradition is also reported in the Targum (pseudo) Yonatan Bereishit 41:45 (and 48:9).

15. See Liqutei Torah, Parshat Matot, Sefer Liqutim Parshat Matot.

16. It is interesting that what is described by the Ari (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, 1534 -1572) in terms of spiritual traits, was later developed in the field of genetics by Gregor Mendel (1822 - 1824) in terms of physical traits.

17. The same idea is taught, in more accessible language, by R. Zvi Elimelech Shapira (1783-1841) of Dynow in the Igra D'kala, where he cites the Ari.



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