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Oaths and Vows (Rabbi Sacks on Matot, Covenant & Conversation)

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The parsha of Matot begins with a passage about vows and oaths and their annulment. It uses vocabulary that was later to be adopted and adapted for Kol Nidrei, the annulment of vows on the eve of Yom Kippur. Its position here, though – near the end of the book of Numbers – is strange.

The Torah has been describing the last stages in the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land. The command has been given to divide the land by lot between the tribes. Moses has been told by God to prepare for his death. He asks God to appoint a successor, which He does. The role goes to Joshua, Moses’ apprentice for many years. The narrative then breaks off to make way for an extended account of the sacrifices to be brought on the various days of the year. Following that comes the section with which parshat Matot begins, about vows and oaths.

Why is it here? There is a superficial answer. There is a verbal link with the penultimate verse of the previous parsha:

“These shall you offer to the Lord on your festivals, in addition to your vows and your freewill offerings. (Num. 29:39)

“These shall you offer to the Lord on your festivals, in addition to your vows and your freewill offerings. (Num. 29:39)

Having mentioned vows, the Torah now states the laws that apply to them. That is one explanation.

However there is another answer, one that goes to the very heart of the project on which the Israelites were about to embark once they had crossed the Jordan and conquered the land. One problem, perhaps the problem, to which the Torah is an answer is: Can freedom and order coexist in the human sphere? Can there be a society which is both free and just at the same time? The Torah sets out for us the other alternatives. There can be freedom and chaos. That was the world full of violence before the Flood. And there can be order without freedom. That was the Egypt from which the Israelites were liberated. Is there a third alternative? And if so, how is it created?

The answer the Torah gives has to do with language. Recall that it was with language that God created the world: “And God said, Let there be… and there was…” One of the first gifts God gave humanity was language. When the Torah says that “God formed man from the dust of the land and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7), the Targum translates the last phrase as “and man became a speaking being.” For Judaism, speaking is life itself.

However, Judaism is particularly interested in one unusual use of language. The Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin called it “performative utterance.”[1] This happens when we use language not to describe something but to do something. So, for instance, when a groom says to his bride under the chupah, “Behold you are betrothed to me,” he is not describing a marriage, he is getting married. When in ancient times the Beit Din declared the New Moon, they were not making a statement of fact. They were creating a fact, they were turning the day into the New Moon.

The key example of a performative utterance........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)

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