Matot – On oaths and pledges

3 When a man makes a vow to YHWH or swears an oath, to take a restriction upon himself, he must not cease rather do exactly as it has come out of his mouth.

Numbers 30

How powerful are our words and thoughts? Can they move mountains or change history of the world?

Words are all we have in the hours we spend with ourselves. They can bring us to change what we do and how we behave.

9 Hannah got up after eating and after drinking in Shiloh [1] ; Eli, the priest. sat on the seat by the doorpost [2]literal translation of mezuzah of the shrine. 10 She was wretched, praying to YHWH and crying all the time. 11 She made a vow saying to YHWH of TZVAOTH [3] : if you should realize your servant’s plight, remember me, and not forget your servant, you give her a male offspring, I will give him to YHWH for his entire life and a razor will never touch his head. 12 As she kept praying profusely before YHWH, Eli was watching her mouth.

I Samuel, chapter 1

No amplification, no audio, nothing but a whisper and a prayer formed this impassioned oath. Did Chana’s pledge of words change her fate? Did her prayer open her womb – can any words do so? She didn’t shout out her message, but it poured out of her to make an oath of historic proportions. Was it her oath that changed her fate or the sincerity in her heart that made things happen?

4 Jonah started out to go to the city [4] , a day’s walk away; he called out saying: in forty days Nineveh will be destroyed!” 5 The people of Nineveh believed in God, so they declared a fast, all of them – from the greatest to the smallest – dressed in sack cloth.

Jonah 3

Words out of a prophet’s mouth once spread around a great city and the people responded seriously to the words of doom.

8 They were covered in sacks—the people and also the animals; they called out to God fervently; they all turned away from their evil doings and from the injustice they had done. 9 Who knows but God will relent, turn away from his destructive rage, and we will not be doomed.

Jonah 3

Wasn’t everyone shocked when these simple words of the impending doom brought about such amazing change?! Fairy tales are made of these things!

We like are actors on a constantly evolving stage: the text propels us and we move. The words force actions as the script unfolds into reality before our eyes. We begin this from the moment we speak – tugging words around us, syllables spilling into one another until sense is made of the noises we make. Then we no longer merely move, we think and respond to ourselves and others around us.

We think, feel, desire, concentrate, speak so much and so often, but are we committed to what we say?

8 As the sun shone, YHWH sent a destructive wind; the sun beat down on Jonah’s head and he fainted—he asked to die saying: my death is better than my life.

Jonah 4

Why did the prophet ask to die over a simple dried up plant? What did he really know of suffering, either physical or mental? He seems so shallow in his plea and the words he spoke in prayer sound foolish and exaggerated. Salvation, not destruction, should come because of a few words of warning heeded in time and measures taken through wise counsel by a sincere and decisive leader.

Will we be like Hannah or like Jonah? Will we go through trials and tribulations honestly or detached and insincere?

Hopefully our own SALVATION [5]Salvation for Mordecai Kaplan meant  three things – growth, creativity and integration. Growth and religion were identical for Kaplan. In his diary he put it this way: “ . . . … Continue reading will come all because of a few words:

1 A psalm to the leader, a song to David

2 Silent praise to God in Zion– to you the vow will be repaid

3 The one who hears prayers, all humankind will come to you

4 Reports of offenses overcome me; our misdeeds you will expiate.

Psalm 66
 Words should make us shudder. 
   Words should bring us to tears.
     Words should penetrate into our minds. 
       Words must move us to think. 
 Words should guide us to safety. 

Midrash Harabah and English translations by Rabbi Gail Shuster-Bouskila ©2021


2 literal translation of mezuzah
5 Salvation for Mordecai Kaplan meant  three things – growth, creativity and integration. Growth and religion were identical for Kaplan. In his diary he put it this way: “ . . . growth itself is a prerequisite to making the most out of life, for growth is the progressive realization of the potentialities latent in us, potentialities physical, mental, social and spiritual. Growth is thus a prerequisite to finding life worthwhile.” [ Kaplan Diary, December 16, 1942]