Parashat Mattot (Numbers 30:2-32:42)

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying,” Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites;
then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (Numbers 31:1)

Parashat Mattot provides a rebuttal to the familiar adage, “Talk is cheap.” Mattot begins by declaring the inviolability of men’s vows. It continues with laws permitting fathers to annul their young daughters’ vows and husbands to annul their wives’ vows. (Widows’ and divorced women’s vows are as sacrosanct as men’s.) While Mattot describes a patriarchal society with diminished rights for women, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (1959-; Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University) focusses on a less obvious aspect of these laws: the father or husband must annul the oath immediately. If he waits a day, the woman’s oath, and the obligation to fulfill it, stands. Why does a day’s difference matter?

The rabbis of the Talmud discuss this issue (with regard to witnesses testifying about a missing husband) and agree: when one witness doesn’t challenge the other’s testimony, the “silence” constitutes agreement (Babylonian Talmud Y’bamot 87b). Thus, if the father or husband doesn’t speak out immediately, he becomes associated with and obligated to the oath by his silent assent.

Modern technology permits us to witness things all over the world. Mattot reminds us this brings with it an obligation to speak out immediately when we object to what we see. This may come at some personal cost; it is not easy to be the outlier in a group. Remaining silent, though, implies agreement and support. Who knows what past tragedies could have been averted had more people spoken out? Talk is not cheap. It may be the most valuable asset we have.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

David