Words for Good or Words for Destruction
This week’s Dvar Torah on Parashat Matot-Masei is written by Rabbi Jeremy Barras, one of our talented Melton & More faculty members.
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This week's Torah portion is not necessarily what it first appears to be. Parashat Matot opens in Numbers 30 with Moses conveying to the heads of the Israelite tribes certain laws pertaining to oaths. The whole of chapter 30 discusses these laws and how they manifest in Israelite society. What is unusual here is not that certain mitzvot are passed on to the Children of Israel, but rather their location in the text.
In the previous Torah portion of Pinchas the Israelites are drawn into worshipping idols and sexual immorality with the Midianites when the evil prophet Balaam convinces Balak, king of Moab, that the best way to defeat the Israelites is by enticing them to sin so that their G-d will punish them. In Chapter 31, G-d commands the Israelites to seek revenge on the Midianites who enticed the Israelites to sin.
The ancient sages are curious why the laws of oaths are placed here in between the enticement of the Israelites in last week's portion and their quest for revenge in this week's portion. The medieval sage Nachmanides notes that since the end of Parashat Pinchas includes information about sacrifices, which are considered vows of the sanctuary, the Torah should also honor other vows such as the secular vows people make with themselves or one another.
Perhaps though, there is a greater significance to the laws of vows being placed in such close proximity to the story of Balak and Balaam that begin with Parashat Balak but end with Israelite revenge in Parashat Matot. Balak hired Balaam to curse the Israelites through the medium of words. His power of prophecy was expressed verbally through the curses he was hired to produce in service of Balak. Placing the laws of vows here in the midst of this story should emphasize for us the importance of our words and the weight that they carry.
In Chapter Two of II Kings, there is a narrative regarding the prophet Elisha that relates back to our story. Elisha was a disciple of Eliyahu HaNavi, and he accompanied Eliyahu as he walked to the place where G-d was going to bring him to heaven on a chariot. Eliyahu had a depressing career in which he could not convince the Israelites to abandon idolatry and worship the one true G-d. At the moment when G-d was about to take him from this world, he asked Elisha if there was anything he wanted in their last moment together.
Elisha's enigmatic request was that Eliyahu should give to him twice of who he was. The rabbis are confused as to what exactly Elisha was asking for, but the sage Malbim explains that what Elisha wanted was to take everything Eliyahu had spiritually and intellectually and combine it with what he already had. In that way, he could become twice what Eliyahu had in his career.
Elisha accompanied Eliyahu wherever he went, and he was well aware that his methods of teaching Judaism were not working. Thus, his plan was to take everything the previous generation knew and combine it with what his new generation also knew. In that way, perhaps his message could reach the people of his day.
However, after Elisha dies, he does not have someone to accompany him in the way the he accompanied Eliyahu. As he is walking alone after Eliyahu's death, he comes upon a group of youths who begin to harass him. They jeer him and make fun of his appearance. Elisha's response is to curse them in the name of the L-rd. Immediately thereafter two bears come out of the woods and maul 42 of the youths to death.
The Talmud draws a connection between the death of these 42 youths and the 42 sacrifices that Balak brought based on the advice of Balaam in order to conjure up a curse upon the Jewish people. The rabbis explain that just as Balaam used his words to curse the Jews, so too Elisha uses words to bring about the death of the youths. In each case, rather than using their words for good, they use their words for destruction.
In the case of Elisha, we would have hoped that he would have taken the tools he learned from Eliyahu, and the knowledge he himself had attained, to bring the Israelites closer to the true knowledge of G-d. Instead, he falls into the same trap that snared Eliyahu and prohibited him from communicating G-d's message to the people.
The story of Elisha, which builds on a lesson inferred from this week's parasha, characterizes one of the greatest threats that faces the Jewish people; namely, the failure of Jewish teachers to communicate Jewish wisdom to their students. We are a people of words, a people who possess a tradition that requires a lifetime of study even by our sharpest sages. Within those words are the ideas that sustain Judaism and allow us to pass it on from one generation to another.
However, in every instance that a teacher does not properly use those words to convey the message in a way that the students will appreciate and understand, an opportunity for transmission is missed and serious consequences could result. Learning the material is an art, and conveying it wisely is another art. In that sense, I truly appreciate the Melton curriculum, which understands clearly these two points; 1) the teacher must understand the material, and 2) the teacher must know how to pass it on in a way that can be understood, utilized, and ultimately treasured by the students.