Mattos Masei Batmitzvah
Rabbi and Rebbitzen, family and friends, Shabbat Shalom and thank you for being here to celebrate my Bat Mitzvah with me.
In preparation for my Bat Mitzvah, I have studied the lessons we can learn from the twin Parshiot of this week, Matot Masei.
After 40 years in the desert, the Jewish people were finally approaching the border of the land of Israel. Moshe spoke to the people first about vows, and then gave them instructions as to what to do and what to expect as he was unable to enter the land of Israel himself. Moshe’s instructions to the Jewish people related not only to their daily lives but also included how to react to enemies, and what to do if war arose.
Later in the Parsha, we read that Moshe sent the Jewish army to fight against the Midianites. He gave them very clear instructions as to who they were to kill, which we read the generals subsequently disobeyed. Rather than reprimanding the generals in front of everyone, Moshe took them outside the camp to tell them privately that they had done something wrong, so as not to embarrass them.
We then read of the two tribes of Reuben and Gad who asked for permission to live outside Israel rather than in Israel itself. They wanted to live in an area of particularly fertile grazing land, even though this would mean separation from the other tribes of Israel. Moshe consented. But on one condition: that they promised to fight alongside the other tribes if at any time in the future war broke out.
Each of these separate stories, all occurring as the Jewish people were preparing to enter what was to become the Jewish homeland after journeying for 40 years, teach us important lessons in life. In the next few minutes I want to mention just 3 of these.
First, I was intrigued to understand why, when there must have been so many other important issues to talk about, Moshe chose first to speak about vows and how careful a person must be to keep his or her promises.
Ish ki yidor neder lu Hashem….. A person who makes a vow to G-d ……
Kechol hayotzeh me piv yaaseh……… All that comes out of his mouth he shall do…
A vow is any kind of binding promise, either positive (I will do) or negative (I won’t do). It is what a person says and commits to keeping. It is essential that people are viewed as trustworthy by those around them and also by themselves - a society in which no-one trusted each other, and could not rely on each other’s promises, would not function.
One might think that words are only passing sounds with no binding power, but the Torah tells us very clearly that words have halachic significance. Keeping vows is so important that the first prayer we say on erev Yom Kippur is Kol Nidrei which is about atoning for vows we may not have kept during the past year and an entire tractate of the Gemara, called Nedarim, is dedicated to this subject.
This is also reflected in the language of the Torah: the word for ‘speak’ is daber and the word for ‘physical objects’ is davvar. In Hebrew these appear as the same word. This shows us that the Torah sees speech and physical objects as having the same value, and that neither one is more real. For example, music and oxygen aren’t visible to the naked eye but we know they are still there. Something which can’t be experienced through our sense of sight or touch, can still exist. In fact, amazingly, a word that is used in magic is ‘abracadabra’ and this word is Hebrew (except pronounced as Evra ke dabra) which means ‘I create as I speak!’ Speech creates a reality.
This is particularly relevant to me as I become Bat Mitzvah because the Torah tells us that, from when you become Bat Mitzvah, your words matter and are taken seriously, unlike those of a young child.
The Torah views a person’s speech as so effective that there are many mitzvot in the Torah that relate to speech and in the Viduy confessional prayer there are also 11 statements of atonement for sins that relate to speech. Jewish sages teach us that…. Mavet vechaim beyad ha lashon which means, ‘Death and life are in the hand of the tongue.’ Unlike that famous proverb ‘Stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me,’ the Torah view is that word can be more powerful then sticks and stones, and their impact can be far more potent.
But words can also be used for good.
In 2017 a man called Neil Layborn was jogging along Waterloo Bridge on his regular run, when he saw a man who he thought was about to jump from the bridge. The man’s name was Johnny Benjamin. Although he didn’t know him, Mr. Layborn stopped jogging and approached Johnny, spoke with him for 25 minutes and persuaded him to seek the treatment that he needed. Jonny Benjamin recovered and was deeply grateful to Neil Layborn for using words to quite literally save his life. The 2 men met up again this year and ran the marathon together to raise money for those suffering from mental ill-health. Neil could have easily jogged past, but instead he used the power of speech to restore hope and life to another.
This idea is also illustrated in a famous story of the King who was ill and required the milk of a lioness to recover. He offered a reward to whoever could help. A young man successfully obtained the milk by taming the lioness by feeding her a goat every day.
One day, he was returning to the palace with his precious jug of milk when he fell asleep and had a dream that all his body parts were arguing over which of them was the most important. When the tongue said that her power of speech was more important then everything else, the arms, legs and other parts all laughed.
The young man awoke and resumed his journey. When he finally arrived at the palace the next morning, he said that he was delighted to present the king with a jug of the milk…. of a dog. The king became furious and threw him into prison. In the cell his tongue said: You see, life and death is in the power of the tongue.
The man subsequently explained his mistake and the king drunk the milk and was healed. But all the other limbs/body parts had to agree that the power of speech is in fact the most powerful.
My Parshiot also contain the concept of members of a family, community or People standing together and supporting each other in times of need.
Moshe allowed Reuben and Gad to live outside Israel provided they fought with their people in times of war. But why only in times of war?
Moshe chose loyalty in times of war as this would be a real test. If the tribes of Reuben and Gad would fight with the rest of the Jewish people, putting their lives at risk, even when their own families and possessions were safe and flourishing, this would show real support and commitment. We may not always get along with our families, friends or communities but we should always remember how important it is to stand by them in times of genuine need. As it says in Leviticus 19 ‘Lo ta’amod al dam reyecha’ ‘do not stand by your brother’s blood’
I am really lucky that I come from a large family with lots of siblings, grandparents aunts, uncles and cousins – many of whom are here today. We may have different personalities but we all understand that we must support each other in all we do.
Finally, I would like to speak about why Moshe was careful to tell his generals that they were wrong without embarrassing them.
If we ever need to tell someone that they have made a mistake then we should do so quietly and out of the hearing of others. This is because we are not allowed to embarrass other people. The Talmud speaks very harshly about those who embarrass others in public - ‘kol hamalbin pnei chaveiro barabim’ and teaches us that shaming another person in public is similar to murdering that person.
This sounds odd at first, but the reason is that public shaming can have a huge impact on what happens next. If a person is told kindly and privately that they have done something wrong they may well think about it and decide to change their ways, which is both good for the person and good for their community. Whereas if a person is made to feel publicly ashamed they are likely to feel cross, resentful and stubborn, and nothing good is likely to come out of it. This applies not only to reprimands but to anything which might embarrass another person, which means that we should always try to be sensitive to how another person is feeling.
When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to beg for food and did not recognize him, Joseph asked all but his brothers to leave the room before he revealed who he was. Even though his brothers had sold him as a slave and caused him enormous suffering he was anxious that they should not be embarrassed.
Learning for my Bat Mitzvah has made me realize the value of being careful how I use words, and of loyalty and respect to my family, friends and the wider community. And I hope that I can become the sort of person who embodies these values.
As I become Bat Mitzvah today, I am now responsible for my own Jewish choices. I am very grateful that my parents, brother and sisters, wider family, friends and community have given me the best possible start on this journey, and I hope that I will continue to make you all proud.
I would also like to thank my bat Mitzvah teacher Yael [Hamer] for helping me to prepare my Dvar Torah
Thank you for listening and Shabbat Shalom.