Parshat Mattos-Mas`ei

FRIDAY, July 21st

Parshat Mattos-Mas`ei (the longest Parsha of the year), opens with a discussion of the laws of vows:  “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 shall carry out all that has crossed his lips.” (Bemidbar 30:3)

The last four words of the verse ככול היצא מפיו יעשה, “he must carry out all that has crossed his lips,” suggest a good rule of thumb, not just in the realm of vows, but also for more casual speech. Even those of us who are careful not to utter vows ought to strive to fulfill our verbal commitments. The Orchot Tzaddikim suggest that even casual boasts are very much like vows, and that one must strive to fulfill them.

Without abandoning this pshat understanding of the verse, as pertaining to oaths and perhaps other verbal commitments, I believe there is another spiritual teaching to this as well. On a pshat level, “he must carry out all that has crossed his lips” is an instruction, but the same Hebrew word יעשה, which JPS translates as “he must carry out,” can be read as a simple statement:  “he shall carry out all that has crossed his lips.” The phrase then becomes not an instruction, but a prophetic warning. The words we say and the way we speak can influence our behavior. If a person uses coarse language, speaks ill of others, insults and attacks with words, in time the vulgarity and negativity reflected in that person’s speech will show themselves in their actions as well.

When we meet someone who dresses and acts like a religious person, but who speaks in a way that is disrespectful of other people or of God, we can be sure that person’s actions, in private, if not in public, are not going to be those of a pious person. And in ourselves, we ought to be careful with how we speak, even in jest, because speech that is scornful and disrespectful, both because speaking in such a way coarsens us, influencing our behavior and character and because the words themselves can have a negative impact just as if we had done some more concrete act. In this way, the phrase, “he shall carry out all that has crossed his lips” may not just be a warning that words can lead to action, but a reminder that words themselves are like actions. When I attack someone with words, it’s as if I have attacked them physically. Everything that comes out of my mouth is itself, a kind of action.

On the positive side, praising others, speaking words of Torah, these words, too, are like actions. These words too, can lead us to corresponding behavior.

May we all be careful with our speech, and let us speak in a manner that elevates, rather than degrades ourselves and those around us. Let us use words that express love, respect, humility and gratitude, and we may find ourselves becoming more loving, more respectful, more humble and more grateful people.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein