The Power of Speech
A Message for Parashat Matot 2017
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Moshe had just learned that his life was soon ending. He was first commanded by God to climb Mount Avarim in order to catch a one-time glimpse of the Land of Israel, as he was reminded that he would not be entering there (Bemidbar 27:12-15). He was then instructed to teach the people several final rules (28:1-30:1), and ultimately told to wage war on the Midianites (31:1). In the moments prior to that last request of him, however, Moshe seized the unprompted opportunity to teach the nation a particular set of laws:
And Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes of Bnei Yisrael, saying: “This is the thing that God has charged: Should a man take a vow or make an oath to God to take upon himself a binding pledge, he shall not profane his word. According to all that issues from his mouth he shall do… (30:2-4)
What is the significance of the rules of vows and oaths to these final moments of Moshe’s life?
S.Y. Agnon, the renowned Israeli Nobel Prize laureate writer, once wrote about the importance of the Council of Four Lands, the legislative body that governed Polish and Lithuanian Jewry for almost two hundred years. His narrator thus explained the difference between a monarchy and an ideal Torah leadership:
When a king establishes a police force to subdue the people by rod and whip and impose his decrees, they flaunt those decrees, and many are the rebels who sin against the king’s will. Yet the holy people Israel willingly accepted all that was placed upon them by the eminences of the Council of the Lands, which was like the Sanhedrin in the Chamber of Hewn Stone in the Temple.
Agnon highlighted the ironic strength wielded by a system that is governed by words over one that is enforced by might.
Bilam, the gentile prophet whose words outlasted him as a parashah in the Torah, was never admonished by the angel of God for his evil intent of cursing Am Yisrael, but rather for his unnecessary use of brutality when he struck his donkey three times (22:32). The angel’s underlying message to Bilam at that time related to ideal authority and control: words are preferred to force.
Indeed, the Hakhamim taught this very lesson when they explained that Moshe’s fatal sin at Mei Merivah lay in the fact that he defied God’s word by hitting the rock instead of speaking to it. God’s subsequent decree that he not enter the Land of Israel, then, stemmed from Moshe’s failure to lead the people with words instead of force.
Understanding that his reign as their leader was nearing its end, Moshe imparted to the people a moral that was undoubtedly running through his mind in those very moments: the importance of speech. He stood in front of them as a teacher who could instruct from a hard-learned experience as he implored them to value the power of their words. Though masked as a narrow set of rules regarding oaths and vows, Moshe’s message spoke a truth further reaching than that. It taught that an ideal leader speaks not with his muscles, but with his words.