Parshat Matot - Masei
Moshe teaches the rules and restrictions governing oaths and vows especially the role of a husband or father in either upholding or annulling a vow. Bnei Yisrael wage war against Midian. They kill the five Midianite kings, all the males and Bilaam. Moshe is upset that women were taken captive. They were catalysts for the immoral behavior of the Jewish People. He rebukes the officers. The spoils of war are counted and apportioned. The commanding officers report to Moshe that there was not one casualty among Bnei Yisrael. They bring an offering that is taken by Moshe and Elazar and placed in the Ohel Mo'ed (Tent of Meeting). The Tribes of Gad and Reuven, who own large quantities of livestock, petition Moshe to allow them to remain east of the Jordan and not enter the Land of Israel. They explain that the land east of the Jordan is quite suitable grazing land for their livestock. Moshe's initial response is that this request will discourage the rest of Bnei Yisrael, and that it is akin to the sin of the spies. They assure Moshe that they will first help conquer Israel, and only then will they go back to their homes on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Moshe grants their request on condition that they uphold their part of the deal.
The Torah names all 42 encampments of Bnei Yisrael on their 40-year journey from the Exodus until the crossing of the Jordan River into Eretz Yisrael. G-d commands Bnei Yisrael to drive out the Canaanites from Eretz Yisrael and to demolish every vestige of their idolatry. Bnei Yisrael are warned that if they fail to rid the land completely of the Canaanites, those who remain will be "pins in their eyes and thorns in their sides." The boundaries of the Land of Israel are defined, and the tribes are commanded to set aside 48 cities for the levi'im, who do not receive a regular portion in the division of the Land. Cities of refuge are to be established: Someone who murders unintentionally may flee there. The daughters of Tzelofchad marry members of their tribe so that their inheritance will stay in their own tribe. Thus ends the Book of Bamidbar/Numbers, the fourth of the Books of the Torah.
“If a man takes a vow to G-d...” (30:3)
A tramp stands by the side of the road. A big Rolls-Royce pulls up right next to him. One of the tinted windows in the back rolls down with a soft electronic purr, coming to rest at the end of its travel with a reassuring clunk. A hand in a white cotton glove emerges from the car holding a crisp new $100 bill. A voice emanates from the car, “It’s for you,” says the voice.
The tramp gazes at the gloved hand in disbelief. “What?” The tramp looks around to make sure no one is standing behind him. “Are you speaking to me?” asks the tramp. “Here, take the money!” Gingerly, he approaches the car, half-expecting that this is some king of practical joke, and the hand will whisk the money back and the car will vanish in a second. He extends his hand, and ever so slowly grasps the note. As soon as his fingers clutch the bill securely, the hand retracts into the car. The window rises with a soft purr and the Rolls-Royce speeds into the distance. The tramp stands transfixed to the spot, beaming from ear to ear with equal amounts of incredulity and joy.
The next day, the tramp is standing in the same spot. The same Rolls-Royce draws up next to him. Again, one of the tinted windows in the back rolls down with a soft electronic purr. The same white-gloved hand emerges from the car holding another crisp $100 bill. The tramp cannot believe his luck. Again, he extends his hand and slowly grasps the note. And as soon as his fingers clutch the bill, the hand retracts and the Rolls-Royce speeds into the distance. Again the tramp is overjoyed.
But maybe not quite as overjoyed as the previous day.
The next day the same thing happens, and the next and the next and the next...
This goes on for about a month. One day, the Rolls-Royce draws up at the lights. This time, however, nothing happens. After a few seconds, the tramp knocks on the glass, but it stays firmly closed. So he knocks harder and then starts to shout, “Where’s my hundred dollars?”
The Midrash quotes the line from our weekly Torah portion “If a man takes a vow to G-d...” and comments that a man doesn’t know the length of his allotted time in this world. What is the connection between “If a man takes a vow to G-d...” and knowing how long we have to live?
The Talmud (Nedarim 10) says that when a person makes a vow to bring an offering to G-d, he shouldn’t say “To G-d, an offering.” Rather, he should say,“An offering to G-d.” The reason is that it's possible that he will utter G-d’s ineffable name “To G-d,” and not complete the sentence by saying the words “an offering”. It will thus transpire that he uttered G-d’s name in vain. The commentators explain that the Talmud is referring here to a situation where the person might die before he is able to complete the sentence. This is the meaning of the Midrash. A person does not know when his time is up, so he should be careful how he phrases a vow.
At first sight, one might think that the Talmud is preoccupied with an extremely remote case. I mean, how many people drop dead in mid-sentence just when they happen to be in the middle of making a vow?
Most of us look at our lives as though we deserve to live. We may not say it, but we feel that way. That’s why we complain against G-d when people die ‘prematurely.’ If we looked at every moment we breathe on this world as yet another hundred dollar bill, maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to complain when G-d takes back something that was a free handout in the first place.
When we see every second as a separate and new gift, we do not assume that necessarily we will be given another gift to complete even the sentence that we have started to speak.