The Talmud (Ta’anit 7a) teaches that Torah studied not for its own sake becomes poison, while Torah studied for its own sake becomes an elixir of life. It also warns us against the category of people known as inappropriate Sages. The point is that Torah by itself does not necessarily create good people. In my view, at a minimum Torah can make someone a good person when joined with wisdom. However, wisdom - including the wisdom to discern whether Torah is for its own sake or someone else’s - is an enigmatic concept. Thankfully, the first of this week’s two parshiyot, Matot, gives us some insight into wisdom.
Parashat Matot begins with a set of laws around vows. While vows seem common in the Biblical world, the Rabbis have a poor view of vows. The Talmud in Nedarim (77b) teaches us that a person who vows commits a sin, even if that person later fulfills their vow. It derives this from a close reading of a different part of the Torah, Deuteronomy 23:23: “If you cease vowing, there will be no sin in you.” It does not state what makes vowing sinful. I propose that a vow is a sin carelessly using words. As we will see, the only way to release someone from a vow is through a person or group of people who show the opposite behavior: those whoarecareful in their use of language. We might conclude that carefully using words and language is a foundation of wisdom.
The beginning of our parasha states, (Numbers 30:3) “A person, if they make a vow to Hashem or swear an oath to restrict themself, they should not profane their word; they should perform all that leaves their mouth.” Shmuel, a second century Sage, derives from this verse that while a person who makes a vow cannot make the vow profane - that is, annul the vow - someone else can. We have a tradition (Nedarim 78a) that a vow can be released by either a single expert - a wise person known in Hebrew as achacham- or three non-experts. In a dissenting view (Bekhorot 37a), Rabbi Judah states that a vow mayonlybe annulled by three people, at least one of whom must be wise.
Our system of annulling vows gives us insight into an important aspect of wisdom. One of the ways to release a vow - in fact, the one our tradition considers to be the way requiring the most wisdom - is to find apetach, an opening. This means that thechachamin question must ask the vow’s originator whether, if they had known such and such would be the effect of their vow, they would have made it in the first place. If the person says they would not have, the vow can be annulled. To be able to ask such questions requires a nuanced and thoughtful sensitivity to language, one that acts both to nullify the vow and demonstrates to the vower how to be more thoughtful about their language in the future. And if a wise person is the only type of person who can perform this nullification by themself, then this kind of sensitivity to the power of words must be part of true wisdom. In the case where an individualchachamcannot be found, we can extrapolate that three people working together are able to create a body that can be as sensitive and discerning about language as a single, wise individual.
As we saw in Nedarim, the Rabbinic tradition sees vows as paradigmatic of poor choices in language. What one says matters, and how one says it matters as well - speech is not something to throw around casually in Jewish tradition. When a person vows, they represent the nadir of thoughtless speech. “Mere words” count. And words said in a serious enough manner, such as invoking the name of God, can become vows or oaths that are dangerously powerful, even permanent.
The only way to revoke these thoughtless words is through wisdom at the level of achacham- at the level of one who is not casual with their speech. A person who makes a vow cannot annul their vow on their own, because they have proven their lack of wisdom by vowing in the first place. But three people who are not necessarily wise on their own can also be worthy to revoke vows. While each may not individually be so careful with their words, three people who are willing to consult and check with one another before making a group statement can be as successful in choosing words with discernment and care as one truly wise person. As we saw earlier, Rabbi Judah takes this one step further. While his view loses, it also has a lesson. He teaches that even the wisest of people are not careful enough in their use of language to annul vows by themselves; even wise people need the checks of others to ensure proper sensitivity to language. That is why a vow, in his view, may only be annulled by a wise person plus two other non-experts.
Taking a lesson from this week’s parasha, we would all do well to better embody wisdom by being more careful in what we say and how we say it. Perhaps we can put a little more prior thought or preparation into our writings, speeches, posts, and conversations. Perhaps we can pause for a moment before expressing ourselves. And perhaps we can check our words with two others before making them more public. May we all merit the wisdom to speak carefully, clearly, and for the sake of Heaven.
Shabbat shalom - שבת של׀מֺ
Reb Joel Goldstein