MATOT – MAASEI by Rabbi Berel Wein
This week’s Torah reading begins with our teacher Moshe calling together the heads of the tribes of Israel, and relating to them the laws of the Torah regarding vows, promises, commitments and verbal speech. On the surface, there seems to be no reason why these laws should especially be given through the offices and conduct of the heads of the tribes of Israel. These laws apply to all Jews, and are eternally relevant to all human situations. It is interesting to note that we do not find other occasions that the leaders of the tribes of Israel were specially chosen to be the conduits of the message that the Torah and Moshe wanted to communicate to all of Israel.
According to the tradition of the Talmud, as expanded upon by Rambam and other scholars, the elders of Israel, the leaders of the tribes were taught directly by Moshe the entire Oral Law as received by him at Mount Sinai. The fact that this portion of the law was taught to the elders of the tribes contains a particularly significant message that is truly relevant to our time in society.
Everyone must keep their word. There are no two different standards of observance for the leaders of the tribes and for the ordinary members of the tribe itself. Yet, we realize that the leaders of the tribes are particularly prone to violate this injunction, that demands full commitment and compliance with one’s words and promises.
We are all aware of political leaders who when campaigning for office make grandiose promises and undertake to further proposed policies and agendas. And we are just as aware that when these very same people achieve office and power, they oftentimes renege and reverse the very ideas and proposals that they used to gain that power and position. The excuse that is always given is that one sees from here — in a position of power — what one did not see from there, when one was not in such a position or office of power. However, that is usually a lame excuse.
The words and promises of leaders and politicians in our time do not carry very much weight with the population that they are meant to represent. It is because of this tendency by leaders to say one thing and then do another that the Torah emphasizes that these laws of commitment, regarding the spoken word, that one is bound to fulfill whatever one says, is especially important to emphasize to the leaders of the tribes. Too often they have made commitments and statements before, that now, when they have achieved a leadership role, they are no longer willing to fulfill or honor. This is an important lesson for all times, but especially ours. Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Berel Wein