13 Jul 2023 Parshas Matos: The Power of Words & Churban BHM”K
Parshas Matos, the first of this week’s double parshios of Matos-Masei, begins with the Torah instructing us regarding the laws of vows and oaths, both for a man and a woman. While these mitzvos are complicated and intricate (and far beyond the scope of this dvar torah), we can still derive crucial lessons from the Torah’s focus on the power of the spoken word. The sedra begins with Hashem instructing Moshe to instruct the heads of the tribes of the nation saying: אִישׁ כִּי–יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַה’, אוֹ–הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל–נַפְשׁוֹ—לֹא יַחֵל, דְּבָרוֹ: כְּכָל–הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו, יַעֲשֶׂה – If a man makes a vow to Hashem or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do (Bamidbar 30:2-3; see Bamidbar 30:2-17 for the entire first perek of the parsha).
A person’s words have tremendous value and power. What one says, he must do. What one promises, he must uphold. What one utters to undertake, he must fulfill. We see then, that the spoken word carries weight far beyond simply ‘speaking words’. While it is the airways, throat, tongue, palate, teeth and lips that form our words, and our mind that gives rise to these words, the words themselves have great impact and import. They affect ourselves, our neshamos, and all those around us, to whom we speak and with whom we interact.
The old adage “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt (or harm) me,” (which first appeared in the mid 1800’s!) is the opposite of the Torah perspective and wholly untrue in both halacha and haskafa. Our words, in fact, potentially can and do hurt others, R”L, and are all too often uttered without us considering the impact these words have. From the Torah’s viewpoint, though our words are puffs of air that physically dissipate once spoken, their effect remains, often forever.
Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav, zt’l, teaches that, “Judaism believes that words per se are the most powerful weapon G-d has provided man. Judaism believes in the power of the mind and the majesty of the word. Through the word, G-d created the world. G-d did not need words to create the world, but He chose the word as the instrument of creation in order to teach us that we can create the world through the word – and can destroy the world through the word. The word can be the most creative power in man’s hands, but it can also be the most destructive power given to man. That is why Judaism is almost merciless with regard to lashon ha’rah, evil speech, and why it takes so seriously the issues of perjury, vows and oaths.
“In Judaism, the word is the mark of one’s identity as a human being, in contradistinction to a beast or brute. In medieval Hebrew, the name for man is medabber, the ‘speaker,’ Judaism believes in the potency of the word. It is not just a sound, it is not just phonetics – it has a mystical quality to it. Hence man’s awareness of G-d must be objectified in the word. ‘And they all open their mouth in holiness and purity, in song and hymn, and bless, praise, glorify, revere, sanctify and declare the kingship of G-d’” (Abraham’s Journey, p.28-29).
The Sages teach (Pirkei Avos 2:1): הִסְתַּכֵּל בִּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים וְאִי אַתָּה בָא לִידֵי עֲבֵרָה, דַּע מַה לְּמַעְלָה מִמְּךָ, עַיִן רוֹאָה וְאֹזֶן שׁוֹמַעַת, וְכָל מַעֲשֶׂיךָ בַסֵּפֶר נִכְתָּבִין – pay attention to three things and you will not come to sin: know what is above you: an Eye that sees, an Ear that hears, and all your deeds are Written in a book. In the Eternal World, before the Heavenly Court, we will have to give an accounting of all of our actions, including all the words that we uttered in this world. If we were but able to keep this teaching in mind at all times (or even most of the time!), how much more careful we would all be before speaking.
As we are charged with being a holy nation, kedoshim ti’hi’yu, part of being holy is defined by counting both the quality and quantity of our words (see the Ramban to Vayikra 19:2 – וגם ישמור פיו ולשונו מהתגאל ברבוי האכילה הגסה ומן הדבור הנמאס כענין שהזכיר הכתוב (ישעיהו ט טז) וכל פה דובר נבלה ויקדש עצמו בזה עד שיגיע לפרישות כמה שאמרו על רבי חייא שלא שח שיחה בטלה מימיו).
As Parshas Pinchas is (almost) always the first sidra read in the Three Weeks, this follows that Matos will always be read Shabbos Mevorchim Chodesh Av. As we begin the Nine Days, we are reminded about the power of our words. What is the connection between Matos, the importance of vows and words, and Churban BHM”K (destruction of the Temples)?
Chazal (Yoma 9b) teach us that the first BHM”K was destroyed (in 586 BCE by the Babylonians) because of the three cardinal sins prevalent during that time: idolatry, immortality and bloodshed. As for the second Temple (destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans), the Sages (ibid) teach that it was destroyed because of baseless hatred amongst the nation. And then, the Gemara questions: ובמקדש ראשון לא הוה ביה שנאת חנם – and in the time of the First Temple, was there no baseless hatred? Answers the Gemara: אלו בני אדם שאוכלין ושותין זה עם זה ודוקרין זה את זה בחרבות שבלשונם – yes, there was; for these were people who would eat and drink with one another, and then spear one another with the swords of their tongues.
Hence, the sin of poisonous words and hatred amongst the people contributed to the downfall of both Batei Mikdash, and our long and bitter exile, R”L.
About his father, Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald z’l, his son Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald relates the following vignette: “My late father, R’ Ronnie Greenwald ztz’l was davening mincha one Shabbos without his hat. A fellow who had recently joined the community whispered in his ear, ‘You know, you should be wearing a hat.’ My father responded, ‘I am not so religious.’ The man apologized and stepped away. Two minutes later, my father approached him and asked, ‘Are you religious?’ ‘Yes, yes,’ the man responded vigorously. ‘Then why are you embarrassing me?’ my father asked” (Mishpacha, Issue 968, 7.5.23, p.43).
As we prepare to usher in the month of Av, the most mournful time on the Jewish calendar year, let us recall the sins that destroyed our Temple, our Land, and exiled us from our Home. Let us recall that words can build or destroy, and perhaps if we are cognizant of how, what and when we speak, we will have the merit to be the generation that turns galus into geula.
בברכת חודש מנחם אב ושבת שלום,