Mattot begins with a discussion of the laws of vows. And the Hatam Sofer (Rabbi Moses Schreiber, 1762-1839 of Hungary), famous as a halachic authority and for his vehement opposition to the Reform movement, makes on its opening verse a comment that sounds like it could have been written last week.
The parshah begins: "Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying ... ."
The Hatam Sofer asks, "Why is it that this parshah -- which deals with vows, oaths, and 'he shall not break his word' -- is addressed to the heads of the tribes [rather than the usual Children of Israel]?"
His answer? Because the majority of leaders and politicians are quick to make promises, and also quick to go back on them.
I couldn't have said it better myself. Clearly, Kohelet was right when he said, "There is nothing new beneath the sun!" However, the medieval Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra suggests that the section on vows is actually addressed to the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad in order to reinforce their obligation to keep the promises they had made to Moses.
After the war with Midian, Gad and Reuben come to Moses, Eleazar, and the chieftains of the community and say: "The land that the Lord has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to us," they continued, "if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan."
Moses rebukes them, believing they are trying to avoid participating in the coming war of conquest of the Promised Land, and he compares them to the spies whose fear led to the death of the generation of the Exodus in the wilderness. But they explain that this is not their intention.
"We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children. And we will hasten as shock-troops in the van of the Israelites until we have established them in their home. ... We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion."
Moses agrees: "Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised."
Also Quite Subtle
And here we learn that while the Torah is often quite heavy-handed when making a point --plagues, serpents, fire from heaven and the like -- it can also be quite subtle.
The Tanhuma, as cited by Rashi, notes that Moses had reason to suspect the motives of Reuben and Gad because their initial appeal seemed to be concerned primarily with wealth and material possessions.
They speak initially about their cattle and the importance of good grazing land, and after Moses rebukes them they say, "We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children."
Rashi explains: "They showed more concern for their own money than their sons and daughters, as they placed their cattle before their little ones.
Moses said to them, "Do not do so. Put first things first and secondary things second. First, build cities for your little ones, and afterwards folds for your sheep."
Moses' message -- reversing the order of their words -- was subtle, but Gad and Reuben received it loud and clear. How do we know?
Because they responded to Moses: "Your servants will do as my lord commands. Our children, our wives, our flocks and all our other livestock will stay behind in the towns of Gilead while your servants cross over ... to engage in battle."
It took some doing, but now they had their priorities straight.
After all, nobody ever said on his deathbed, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office."
Rabbi Joyce Newmark is a resident of Teaneck, N.J. She was a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.