Parshat Mattot opens up by presenting the importance of fulfilling vows. As the Torah states, “He shall not break [yachel] his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” (Numbers 30:3)
Jewish law posits that while the person who has taken a vow cannot nullify it, others, comprising a lay court, can cancel the vow for him. This is commonly done during the period of the High Holidays in a ceremony called hatarat nedarim.
What is fascinating is that in discussing the nullification of vows, he Talmud gives as an example a vow made by God. This occurs when God decides to destroy the Jewish people after they build the golden calf. Moses intercedes. The verb used for that intercession is va’yechal, the very term used in our text. As Rava in the Talmud said: “Moses stood before God until he cancelled His [that is, God’s] vows.” (Berachot 32a)
In that cancellation, Moses tells God, “Let not Your anger blaze forth against Your people whom You delivered from Egypt.” (Exodus 32:11) We can imagine Moses saying to God, Perhaps You acted precipitously without taking into consideration that the Israelites just came out of Egypt after serving hundreds of years of bondage. It’s understandable that they made a golden calf, as calves were commonly worshipped in Egypt.
Furthermore, Moses asks God whether He took into account that with the annihilation of Israel, the covenantal promise made to the patriarchs and matriarchs would never be fulfilled. (32:13)
God hears Moses’s arguments, and in the end God’s vows are upended. As the Torah states, “And the Lord regretted of the evil which He said He would do to His people.” (32:14)
And so, the vows of our portion can be extended to the divine sphere. Like human vows, they can be negated.
Is it a coincidence that the portion of Mattot is always read on the days between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av, when we remember the destruction of the Temple? The reading about vows includes our prayer to God: “If You have made a decree against the Jewish People, rethink Your words, and allow us, like Moses of old, to nullify Your vows.”
Rabbi Avi Weiss, is founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale–the Bayit, founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and co-founder of Yeshivat Maharat.
Friday, July 9, 2021
Tammuz 29, 5781
Light Candles at 8:11 pm
Saturday, July 10
Torah Reading: Matot-Massei: Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-28; Jeremiah 4:1-2; Isaiah 66:1; Isaiah 66:23-24; Isaiah 66:23
Shabbat ends 9:18 pm