As He Says

Avi Luria • 2008

Words create and destroy, sanctify and desecrate. Who gave them the right?



Various Parshiyot in Bamidbar are concerned with words, their significance, corruption and their amendment. From the story of the Meraglim, continuing with Mei Meriva, and finally we conclude with the laws of vows - Nedarim, the issue is raised over and over again. It is also possible to read the criticism of Bilam as regarding to the gap between the literary translation of his words that abide to the word of  God, and the meaning behind them, the meaning found ‘between the lines’ of what he says.

The years of wandering the desert following the sin of the Meraglim are called “The Years of Silence”. The quiet of the desert creates an intimidating effect that raises the basic doubt of whether there is any justification to any kind of speech that is not the word of God - Our words are not fit to contain the absolute. On the other hand, the words spoken to the backdrop of desert silence hold within them the might of restraint, which holds the power to crush boulders.[1]

By use of both the story of Mei Meriva and the Parasha of Nedarim, the Torah wishes to reinforce the power of words:

Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel, saying: This is the thing the Lord has commanded. If a man makes a vow to the Lord or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do. (Bamidbar 30, 2-3)

Human speech has the power to create a reality, the violation of which is perceived as desecration.  Addressing the heads of the tribes, the Matot [literally staffs]  brings to memory the confrontation between God to Moshe, when the first decreed that Moshe must speak to the stone during Mei Meriva, and Moshe eventually striking it with his staff. Postmodern thinkers will claim: the world is nothing more then “language games”. In our case, language is perceived as solidly engraved in actuality and the rock hard reality.[2] And none the less, the Parasha presents the option of desecration and annulment. The woman is perceived as always found within a certain context, which can validate or nullify her words. The change of context seems to readdress the question:

But if she is [betrothed] to a man, with her vows upon her or by an utterance of her lips which she has imposed upon herself. And her husband hears it but remains silent on the day he hears it, her vows shall stand, and her prohibition which she has imposed upon herself shall stand. But if her husband hinders her on the day he heard it, he has revoked the vow she had taken upon herself and the utterance which she had imposed upon herself, and the Lord will forgive her. (Bamidbar 30, 7-9)

The sages expanded upon this possibility to annul vows with a Rabbinical authority by uprooting it from the source.[3] But if it is so easily annulled, where does speech gain its validity from in the first place? Speech is always partial, dynamic, changing, and dependent on human context. How then can sanctity be attributed to it, or furthermore - how can it be allowed to establish its boundaries?

According to Rabbi Nacman of Breslov,[4] the power of a vow depends on our faith in the rabbinical authority. This faith has a double affect - it establishes the power of speech on the one hand, but also allows it to be annulled, and for the rules to change. The actuality does not depend on an ontological absolute, but rather on faith - which is a human decision.

The Torah’s outlook is that the world was created by speech. And the commandments were given by speech. The annulment of vows that overcomes the laws of reality but also establishes them is contained in the ability to forgive - “And the Lord will forgive her”.



[1]See Shir-Hashirim Raba 2, 2

[2] See Rav Shagar:

תפיסת האמונה והלשון של האדמו”ר הזקן לאור משנתו של ויטגנשטיין, in: על האמונה - עיונים במושג האמונה ובתולדותיו במסורת היהודית.

[3] Ketubot 74 b

[4] Likutai Moharan A, 57

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