- Rabbi Yosef Goldin
Parenting from the Parsha- Parshat Matot-Maasei- Keeping Our Word
- Rabbi Yosef Goldin
- Jul 27, 2022
Am Yisrael are at the banks of the Jordan River, bordering Eretz Israel. Preparations are being made to enter the land- the new generation of leaders has been appointed, and instructions regarding the eventual division of the land, chiluk ha’aretz, have been given. The nation is ready for final instructions before embarking upon their next stage of the journey.
Moshe calls the leaders of each tribe together, and we would expect him to pass on a message crucial to their impending journey. And yet, what does Moshe convey to them? The laws of nedarim, oaths and vows. “If a person takes a vow to Hashem, or takes an oath to make something forbidden to him, he should not violate his word, according to what comes from his mouth he should do.”
Why here, and why now? While we all can acknowledge the importance of keeping our word, why are these laws relevant to Am Yisrael specifically at this moment, as they prepare to enter Eretz Yisrael?
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his Weekly Column Covenant and Conversation, suggests that G-d wants to share a powerful message with the nation during these pivotal moments. As the Jewish nation prepares to enter the land and create a new, free society, Hashem relays to them what will be a fundamental building block of this society:
“The institution of promising, of which vows and oaths to G-d are a supreme example, is essential to the existence of a free society. Freedom depends upon people keeping their word…Freedom needs trust. Trust needs people to keep their word, and keeping your word means treating words as holy, vows and oaths as sacrosanct…That is why, as the Israelites approached the Holy Land where they were to create a free society, they had to be reminded of the sacred character of vows and oaths.”
The foundation of any free and moral society involves the ability to trust one another, to rely on one another, and to work together for the common good of society. Such trust can only be achieved when people believe in the power of their words, and the importance of keeping their word. Without that basic courtesy, the building blocks of any society fall apart. Hashem therefore highlights the message of nedarim- the importance of keeping one’s word- specifically as they enter the land, in order to stress that this character trait is an essential component in the creation of a proper society.
Rabbi Sacks then notes a prime example from the continuation of Parshat Matot, the agreement between Moshe and Bnei Gad/Reuvein. Although Moshe initially admonishes the two tribes for requesting to remain on the Eastern side of the Jordan, eventually they come to an agreement whereby the tribes of Gad/Reuvein will lead Bnei Yisrael in conquering the land before returning to take their portion on the other side of the Jordan. Fundamental to this entire agreement, notes Rabbi Sacks, is the assumption that both sides will keep their word-that Bnei Gad/Reuvein will fulfill the condition, and that Moshe/Yehoshua will give them the land that they have requested. "Everything depends on their keeping their word. All social institutions in a free society depend on trust, and trust means honoring our promises, doing what we say we will do. When this breaks down, the very future of freedom is at risk.”
Unfortunately, in the societies around us, we are witnessing what happens when the basic foundation of trust and truth is broken. The hyper-politicized tensions that currently exist in both Israel and the US are a result of a basic lack of trust between both sides of the aisle. The absence of basic trust and respect leads to a breakdown of the very fabric of our society- no one can be believed, and each side views the other with suspicion. Only by working together to rebuild that trust can our societies climb out of this vicious cycle in which we find ourselves.
From a parenting perspective, the importance of building trust through the strength of our word is incredibly important and often overlooked. Particularly when our children our young, we tend to feel that we have a license to be less than truthful in the way that we speak. To note a few examples:
1) We are in the middle of doing something important, and our children ask us to play with them. We respond by saying that we will be there “in two minutes”, when we know very well that in all likelihood, we won’t be available for at least ten minutes.
2) Our young child asks for a treat or a toy, and we tell him that he can have it later- expecting that he will forget about it later.
3) We aren’t able to take our child to an event to which they were hoping to go to- but we promise that next time we will take them, without really thinking about when that next time might be, or whether we will actually be able to do so.
4) A child misbehaves, and we warn them that if they act that way again, they will receive a specific punishment or consequence. The child does it again, and yet we don’t follow through with the stated punishment.
In each of these cases, our intentions may be entirely innocent. We dont intend to actively mislead our kids, and we often justify not fulfilling our word- we didn’t really mean what we said, the kids will forget anyway, etc. And yet, in these and other similar situations, we fail to develop a crucial aspect of the parent-child relationship- trust. We assume the child will forget, but maybe he wont. And even if most of the time the child does forget, the underlying message we give him and ourselves, whether we intend to or not, is that our word is not binding- not something that can be relied upon. When that occurs, a basic lack of trust develops in the parent-child relationship. While at a younger age, the lack of trust may not be an issue, as our children get older, mutual trust will be one of the most important aspects of the parent-child relationship.
Instead, we must strive to view our word as sacrosanct. We should only promise or commit to things we believe we can, and intend to, keep. Doing so will teach our children the importance of the spoken word, and the power of commitment. In this way, we will not only strengthen the trust within the parent-child relationship, but also raise children who will contribute such trust to society at large.
To end with Rabbi Sacks beautiful words:
“Trust depends on keeping your word. That is how humans imitate G-d-by using language to create. Words create moral obligations, and moral obligations, undertaken responsibly and honored faithfully, create the possibility of a free society.
So never break a promise. Always do what you saw you are going to do.”
Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom!
Am Yisrael are at the banks of the Jordan River, bordering Eretz Israel. Preparations are being made to enter the land- the new generation of leaders has been appointed, and instructions regarding the eventual division of the land, chiluk ha’aretz, have been given. The nation is ready for final instructions before embarking upon their next stage of the journey. And yet, what does Moshe convey to them? The laws of nedarim, oaths and vows. Why here, and why now? Why are these laws relevant to Am Yisrael specifically at this moment, as they prepare to enter Eretz Yisrael? And what can we learn from this regarding parenting?