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Parasha Matot-Masei (Tribes-Journeys): Vows, Oaths, and Victory

Matot-Masei (Tribes-Journeys)
Numbers 30:2–36:13; Jeremiah 2:4–28, 3:4, 4:1–2; Matthew 23:1–25:46

Western Wall-Prayer

A Jewish man prays at the Western (Wailing) wall wearing tefillin (phylacteries), a literal interpretation of binding the Torah as a sign on the hand and between the eyes as found in Exodus 13:9 and Deuteronomy 11:18.  Verses of Scripture are in the black boxes.

Last week, in Parasha Pinchas, we read that God gave Pinchas (Phinehas) a pact of peace and everlasting priesthood in response to his zeal for the Lord.

In this week’s Parasha, Moses speaks to the heads of the tribes (matot) about the laws governing vows (neder) and oaths (shevua):

“Moses said to the heads of the tribes [matot] of Israel:  ‘This is what the Lord commands:  When a man makes [nadar] a vow [neder] to the Lord or takes an oath [shevua] to obligate [asar] himself by a pledge [issar], he must not break his word but must do everything he said.'”  (Numbers 30:1–2)

The Hebrew word neder, which is often translated vow in English Bibles, though English really does not have an equivalent word, denotes a solemn declaration using the name of God to consecrate something to God and also, to do something in His service or honor.

Reading Torah-siddur-tefillin

A Jewish man reads from the siddur (Jewish prayer book).  The black strap wound on the hand is tefillin.

A neder, then, dedicates something or someone to God, such as a donation pledge, sacrificial offering or the dedication of a child as in the case of Hannah and Samuel.  (1 Samuel 1:11)  That dedicated object or person then becomes holy.  (Numbers 6:8)

Nedarim are often conditional—if You do this, I will do that.

Jacob (Yaacov) made this kind of vow in exchange for God’s provision and protection on his journey when he promised to give back to God a tenth (tithe) of everything God gave to him.  (Genesis 28:20–22)

While a neder dedicates something or someone to God, a shevua is a sacred commitment made between people or groups, or between a person and God.

We see an example of such an obligation in Genesis 47:31, when Jacob asked Joseph to make a shevua that he would bury him in Canaan.

Jewish men-praying-Kotel-Wailing Wall

Jewish men praying at the Kotel (Wailing Wall)

Ruinous Vows

Vows, however, do not always arise from consecration.  Quite often they are uttered rashly in times of distress or desperation in an attempt to secure divine help or aid.

The challenge, then, is to remember to keep the vow when the trial has passed.

The reality is, of course, that sometimes we simply don’t keep the vow we have made, despite our best intentions.  We might even forget that we made a vow.

For that reason, Ecclesiastes advises that we not be hasty in making promises to God.  It also advises us to be quick in our follow-through when we do go ahead and make a vow.

“Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God….  When you make [nadar] a vow [neder] to God, do not delay to fulfill it.  He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.  It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it.”  (Ecclesiastes 5:2, 4–5)

For an example of a rash and foolish vow, we can look back to Jephthah’s vow in Parasha Chukat.  In exchange for a future military victory, he vowed to sacrifice in thanksgiving the first thing to come out of his house when he returned home.

Much to his horror, it was his one and only daughter who first came out.  (Judges 11:30–39)

Western Wall-Plaza

The Western (Wailing) Wall plaza in Jerusalem

Rabbinic consensus provides for the very human tendency to utter vows recklessly.

The Rabbis contend that it’s better to break a foolish or dangerous vow than to persist in carrying it out.

Interestingly enough, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the holiest day of the Biblical calendar, begins with a prayer called Kol Nidre (All Vows).  Its purpose is to break any such vows made over the past year.

Kol Nidre likely arose during the Spanish Inquisition when many Jews were forced to make Christian vows in order to save their lives.  God takes vows seriously and so should we; however, we must also be aware and accept that there are exceptions when a vow must unfortunately be broken.

With this in mind, many pious Jews will mutter b’li neder (without a formal promise)” to avoid becoming trapped in the sin of violating ones commitments.

Still, the person uttering such a qualifier must truly intend to keep their commitment, and it is not to be used for business contracts and legal obligations.  (MiYodeya)

Samson Slays a Thousand Men-James Tissot

Samson Slays a Thousand Men, by James Tissot:  God told Samson’s mother that her unborn child would be a Nazarite.  Although he remained one for life, most men take Nazarite vows for a limited time.

Binding Obligations

Related to the neder, but slightly different, is a bond or binding obligation called an issar.

This is usually a negative vow—a self-imposed pledge to abstain from something that is normally permissible.

An example of this is the Nazarite neder—a pledge to abstain from consuming grape products such as wine and from cutting one’s hair.

The Hebrew noun issar (bond) is closely related to the verb asar, which means to obligate or forbid.

These words carry the connotation of being bound, chained, or imprisoned; for instance, a prisoner is an asir.  From this we understand that we are bound by even voluntary choices to designate something permissible as forbidden (asur).

We see an example of an issar in the life of the Apostle Shaul (Paul), when he joined four men in taking a Nazarite vow to prove to the Jewish People that he maintained an observant Jewish lifestyle and faithfully kept the Torah (Acts 21:23–24).

reading Torah-Western (Wailing) Wall-Jerusalem-Kotel

Reading from a Torah scroll in front of the Kotel

From Slaves to Champions

“Here are the stages in the journey of the Israelites when they came out of Egypt by divisions under the leadership of Moses and Aaron.”  (Numbers 33:1)

In the Masei (Journeys) portion of this week’s Torah study, Moses recounts the 42 journeys and encampments that the Israelites made.  He begins with Israel leaving Egypt while the Egyptians were still burying their firstborn sons, whom the God of Israel struck in the final plague upon Egypt.  (Numbers 33:3–49)

There was nothing secretive or humiliating about Israel’s exodus from Egypt; rather, it was a triumphant and public display of God’s victory over all the gods of Egypt.

The slaves that were once subjugated went out as champions, while their oppressors were left behind broken and defeated!

We can also look forward to such victories.  When God delivers us from circumstances that have held us in bondage, we also go out as champions.

“You will go out with joy and be led forth in peace.”  (Isaiah 55:12)


Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men before the Shabbat in Israel

Entering into the Promised Land

“No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise.”  (Isaiah 60:18)

When Israel arrived by the Jordan at Jericho, their wanderings had come to an end, so God gave Moses directives regarding their imminent entry into the Promised Land.

The very first command was to “drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you.  Take possession of the land and settle it, for I have given you that land to possess.”  (Numbers 33:52–53)

God warned Israel that there would be consequences if they failed to drive out the inhabitants of the land.

“But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain of them will be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides.  They will give you trouble in the land where you will live.”  (Numbers 33:55)

He also delineated Israel’s borders in Numbers 34:1–13.  These border certainly contrast the borders that the nations of the world have in mind for Israel today.

“When you enter Canaan, the land that will be allotted to you as an inheritance will have these boundaries…”  (Numbers 34:2)


Jewish students study the Talmud and Torah at a yeshiva (Jewish seminary)

Haftarah Matot-Masei (Prophetic Portion)

This week’s Haftarah portion continues with the season of mourning described last week in Parasha Pinchas.

This season began with a fast last week on the 17th of Tammuz, which marks the day that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Babylonians in 586 BC and once again by the Romans in AD 70.

It ends exactly three weeks later on the 9th day of Av, the day the First and Second Temples were destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans in 586 BC and AD 70 respectively.

This three-week period is called Bein HaMetzarim, which literally means between the straits (Lamentations 1:3).

The term is also a reference to labor and childbirth; when a woman is in full, active labor, she is said to be “Bein HaMetzarim.”  This critical time of labor, commonly called transition, hopefully results in the delivery of a healthy baby.

women's section-Kotel-Western (Wailing) Wall-Jerusalem

Women pray in the women’s section of the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.

If things go badly, however, the consequences can be dire, leading even to the death of the mother and child.

Israel also found itself in a critical transition point (Bein HaMetzarim).  She could have obeyed God’s commands and experienced the blessings; instead, Israel turned away from God and sought after idols.

“My people have committed two sins:  They have forsaken Me, the Spring of Living Water [Makor Mayim Chayim], and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”  (Jeremiah 2:13; see also Jeremiah 17:13)

Israel’s forsaking of God led to the destruction of Solomon’s Temple (First Temple) and Herod’s Temple (Second Temple) on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av).  In 586 BC, the Jewish people were sent into captivity and in AD 70, they were sent into exile.

That sin and its consequences make our hearts heavy still today.

West Jerusalem-Lions Fountain

The Lions Fountain in Jerusalem

Our transitions don’t have to lead to death and destruction; they can lead to birth and new life.

In this Haftarah portion, God calls Himself Makor Mayim Chayim—The Source of Living Water.  (Jeremiah 2:13; see also Jeremiah 17:13)

Yeshua (Jesus) also proclaimed Himself to be the source of living water on the last day of the water pouring ceremony during the Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles):

“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.  Whoever believes in Me, as the Scriptures have said, streams of living water [mayim chayim] will flow from within him.”  (John 7:37–38)

Yeshua was speaking of the Spirit of the Living God, and when we drink of these living waters, we not only find life, but we refresh the lives of others as that living water flows out from us.

Only through the power of these living waters can we victoriously pass through our own critical transition periods and enter into the full blessings that God has for those who obey His commandments.

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