Parashat Mattot, always read in the three-week period between the 17th of Tammuz and 9th of Av, commemorates the destruction of the Temple and our people’s exile from the land of Israel. Ironically, it also addresses issues connected to the settlement of the land, particularly the conquest of the Midianites as a precursor to the conquest of the seven nations of the land, and the settlement of the land on the other side of the Jordan by the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh. The rabbis who established the cycle of Torah readings have set up a contrast between promise of land and reality of exile. In their teaching, exile resulted from the transgressions of the people. The opening passage of Mattot, concerning the making of vows, hints at some of those transgressions.
Moses speaks to the heads of the Israelite tribes, teaching them the laws of vows made by individuals, both men and women. The 18th century rabbi known as the Chatam Sofer notes that these instructions are first given to the heads of tribes because people in high public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep. We live in a world in which we must think about how our leaders use their words, the import of them, and whether there might be a more accurate way of using language. For example, what is the difference between a “carbon tax” or a “price on carbon” or “Illegal
immigrants” and “unaccompanied minor?” Further afield, but still close to home, what is the difference between “occupied” and “disputed” territories? These few examples demonstrate the significance of words and especially the choice of words made by leaders and opinion shapers.
In general, how we use words is crucial. Commentators have noted that Judaism places enormous import on the use of spoken language, the Torah beginning conceptually with creation emanating from speech itself. (In the beginning God spoke and said, “Let there be light.”) The 19th century “Sefer Chafetz Chaim”, an entire book concerning the Jewish ethics and laws of speechby Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, deals entirely with how and when we should speak. Mattot states clearly that our word must be our bond: “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips”.
According to tradition, the First Temple was destroyed because of commission of the three cardinal sins — idolatry, murder and sexual immorality; the Second Temple was destroyed because of “baseless hatred”. We now have our third opportunity to settle the land of Israel. We must make sure, all the more so during times of conflict, to speak not intemperately but judiciously; to speak in a balanced and non-emotive matter as best as possible. Just as “the world” was created through speech, so too our words create our world.