By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Parshas Mattos, one of the three parshiyos that are always read during the Three Weeks, bears lessons for us to improve our behavior in golus and merit our share in Eretz Yisroel, which the Torah apportions in this week’s parsha.
The parsha begins with the laws of nedorim and shavuos, different types of vows and promises a person makes, and the obligation “not to defile your words and do whatever you said you would” (Mattos 30:3).
In our society, words are cheap. They are thrown around aimlessly and carelessly, sometimes in a bid to impress and sometimes just to pass time. In the Twitter generation, everything is superficial, including words. They are conduits used to express thoughts and feelings that contain facile meaning and no depth. Little thought goes into what is said and thus words carry no weight.
This country just experienced two political conventions. People known for oratorical skills read speeches prepared for them and loaded on to a teleprompter. The words expressed opinions that often betrayed what that person has actually done and plans to do. But it didn’t make a difference, because they sounded good and expressed what the audience wanted to hear at that moment. It is not even clear that the crowd cared whether what was being said reflected the truth. As long as it sounded good and had applause lines and some red meat, they were happy.
Millions sat in their homes, watching and listening to those speeches. As long as their party was the one speechifying, they clapped and chanted, giving little thought to the content and impact of those words, should they ever be acted upon or taken seriously. Everything was superficial and thoughtless, words tugging at the emotions and ignoring the intellect.
The headlines the next day focused on the buzzwords and catchphrases, lauding the combination of words that sounded best or worst, depending on the candidate that particular media organ wished to promote.
A failed president offered soaring rhetoric, as if he has presided over eight golden years in the White House. His remarks were eloquent, so the people clapped without giving much thought to the veracity of his words.
A stream of insiders stood at the podium vouching for Hillary Clinton’s integrity and leadership. They couched lies in elegant phraseology and the people clapped.
But we know that words are so much more than that. Words are life itself.
The Ribono Shel Olam created His world with asarah ma’amaros, ten utterances. The Baal Shem Tov explains the posuk in Tehillim of “Le’olam Hashem devorcha nitzov bashomayim” (Tehillim 119) to mean that words used to create are still enduring. The heavens are still sustained by the words that fashioned them, and the water’s existence is a result of that continuing ma’amar. Words are life.
An object is called a dovor in Lashon Kodesh because it is sustained by His word.
There was a time when people valued each word, when they perceived the inherent value of every utterance. Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach said that his uncle, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, once described his bar mitzvah celebration to him.
After davening on the day he turned thirteen, Rav Isser Zalman’s father, Rav Boruch Peretz, and three friends celebrated by partaking of cake and schnapps. The men sat around a table, extended their best wishes to the bar mitzvah bochur, enjoyed a lechayim, and went on their way.
Rav Boruch Peretz explained why he asked those three people to join him. He said that at the bris of little Isser Zalman thirteen years earlier, these three friends had all wished mazel tov to him and added the words, “Im yirtzeh Hashem, we will frei tzach at his bar mitzvah.” They expressed the common prayer to merit rejoicing at his bar mitzvah. He had replied “amein.”
Rav Boruch Peretz felt that those words might have the status of a neder. Therefore, when the time to celebrate the bar mitzvah arrived, he invited them to the celebration.
Rav Shach would say that back home in Lita, ah vort iz geven ah vort. People of depth appreciated the depth and meaning of each word. Words carried weight, and for thirteen years, Rav Isser Zalman’s father walked around carrying that weight so that the words would be honored.
A salesman paid a call to a manufacturer in the city of Nordan in Germany and was astonished when he saw a picture of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch hanging on the office wall of the firm’s Gentile owner. He asked what the story was behind that picture. The man explained.
“My father had a court case many years ago with a Jew from this town. The judge found that the Jew had to swear to affirm the veracity of his words. The custom back then was that the oath had to be taken in the presence of known clergyman, so that the claimant wouldn’t lie. The local rabbi was Rabbi Hirsch, who was the rabbi in nearby Emden. He was brought in to administer the oath.
“Rabbi Hirsch came to town on Friday and stayed over the weekend. He lectured in the synagogue on the Sabbath. My father snuck in to hear what he would say. The rabbi spoke about the seriousness with which a Jew may take an oath and that it is better not to swear at all.
“My father was so taken by the speech that after the Sabbath he went to see the rabbi and told him how impressed he was with his words and would forgo the need to have his opponent swear in court, even if that would mean that he would lose his case against him.
“The Jewish man who was supposed to swear in Rabbi Hirsch’s presence in court to validate his claim also went to visit the rabbi after the Sabbath. He told him that the speech made a serious impression on him and that he would rather lose the case than swear.
“And that is why the rabbi’s picture hangs in my office.”
Words are taken seriously.
When Rav Leib Chasman was a bochur in Kelm, the local esrog merchant showed him a magnificent esrog. The next day, the esrog–soicher tracked down the bochur and told him that he had found an even nicer esrog than the one he had showed him the day before.
The merchant was shocked when the customer said he would buy the first one.
He explained that the day before, he had decided to purchase the first esrog, “so while there is a hiddur mitzvah to buy the nicer esrog, I decided to fulfill the hiddur mitzvah of ‘vedover emes bilvavo.’”
He treasured not only spoken words, but those unspoken as well.
We’ve lost that. In our society, words should have meaning. Meaning also has to have meaning. We must not be superficial. The world is too dangerous a place for us to act without information and without thought. Too often, we express opinions and act based on feelings and not facts, emotions and not intellect. To do so is folly and can have drastic consequences.
Words affect us and other people. We have to be careful not to use insulting words or derogatory innuendo; a seemingly innocuous comment, can be extremely hurtful and cause people to lose sleep and self-worth. To end the golus and help return the Bais Hamikdosh, we should think before we speak and ensure that our speech is neither hurtful nor insulting.
An elderly Belzer chossid, Reb Yisroel Klein, survived the Nazi labor and concentration camps. He told Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz the zechus that he believed saved him.
One day, he saw a person who was so hungry that he was hallucinating and losing his grip on reality. His stomach was bloated and his eyes were rolling in his head. The man had obviously not eaten in days. He was standing at a garbage pail, using his last strength to desperately search for crumbs of food.
Reb Yisroel saw the sad scene and approached the man, who seemed as if he was at death’s door. He said to him, “Reb Yid, tell me how I can help you.”
The man was shocked to encounter some humanism in a place of murder, death and destruction. With limited remaining strength, he softly responded, “Epes essen. Something to eat.”
Mr. Klein had also not eaten for a few days and was in no position to help the starving man by giving him food.
“My dear brother,” he said to the man, “I have nothing, not even a crumb. We are both in the same boat. But there is one thing I can give you, and that is love. I love you, for you are a Jew, just like me.”
With that, he grabbed onto the man’s limp body with both hands and kissed him. They both were overcome with emotion and the tears began to fall. In a choked voice, Reb Yisroel said to the man over and over again, “Ich hub dir leeb. Ich hub dir leeb. I love you. I love you.”
And so they stood, wrapped together, one Jew bringing another back to life with a few simple words.
As they parted, Mr. Klein told his new friend, “Know this: Even here, in this miserable place, the Ribono Shel Olam loves us and hasn’t forgotten us. Let us keep in touch and strengthen each other as long as we are here.”
Reb Yisroel saved a life with four words: Ich hub dir leeb. He had no food, no water, and no clean clothing to share. The only thing he had were words. With but a few words, he nourished and sustained his fellow inmate, enabling him to hold on to life. And in that merit, he also lived.
Last week, in the middle of a telephone conversation with Reb Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, the line was suddenly disconnected. Another fact of life for those unfortunate souls in our federal correctional system. They wait on line for a chance to place a phone call, and then their connection to the outside world goes dead.
I felt bad for him and then went back to what I was doing. For him, it was a bigger deal. The next day, we reconnected. He said that when the line went dead, he was very sad. “I was waiting to talk to you, and when I finally got through, you were gone and I was alone again.”
I asked how he gets over those feelings and remains in good spirits. He matter-of-factly responded, “When we got disconnected, I was sad, so I ran to my Gemara and began learning. Torah lifts me up. Learning Torah makes me happy.”
The power of words.
A man isolated from family and friends, deprived of a connection to his loved ones, Reb Sholom Mordechai is sad because of a conversation cut short. When cut off from those treasured words of love, he finds comfort in the holy words Torah and comes alive once again.
The bnei Gad and bnei Reuvein appeared before Moshe Rabbeinu and told him that they wanted to establish their homes and nachalah on the other side of the Yardein and not in the Promised Land. For hundreds of years, Jews had been waiting to return to the land promised to their forefathers. For forty years, these very same people wandered in the desert on their way to this land. When the time to enter the land arrived, these shevotim said that it wasn’t for them.
Moshe rebuked them for their words, which had the ability to cause members of other shevotim to fear entering Eretz Yisroel, afraid of the wars that must be fought and the land itself (Mattos 32:6-7).
They phrased their request improperly.
Later (Rashi 32:16 ), Moshe pointed out another error that they made as they spoke of their plans. They promised to “build pens for their cattle and villages for the children” to grow up in. Their words indicated skewed priorities by not mentioning their children first.
Perhaps, had they appreciated the power of words, they would have escaped the wrath of Moshe Rabbeinu.
Eight hundred years later, when Sancheirev sent the Jews into exile, Reuvein and Gad were the first to go, eleven years ahead of their brethren who lived in Eretz Yisroel (Rashi, Melochim II, 17:1), because their forefathers didn’t take the time to properly gauge their words (see Rashi in Mishlei 20:21 on the posuk of “nachalah mevoheles barishonah, ve’acharisa lo sevorach”).
Words have the power to break and the power to repair. Words heal and words sicken. Words bring people together and words separate people. The words we use have lasting repercussions.
As we complete the laining of the parshiyos this week, we exclaim together, “Chazak chazak venischazeik.” We cry out a resounding message to each other and to ourselves. We repeat one word that is laden with power: Chazak. Be strong.
This Shabbos, we complete another sefer in our march towards the Torah’s conclusion. We internalize the chapter of the Bnei Yisroel’s sojourn through the midbar and try to learn the lessons that this seder has presented so that we may be strong and strengthened. We say chazak. Study the words of the Torah and you will be strong. Share the words of the Torah and you will be strengthened. Say it together again and again. Appreciate the power of words and use them properly.