"When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said."
For this week's Torah portion, we will be reading Parashat Matot-Masei from Numbers 30:2-36:13, which means 'Tribes-Journeys'.
In this Parasha, we will explore the 40-year journey the tribes went through in the desert, the importance of our vows, following God's instructions, and making sure our words match our actions.
At this point, the people of Israel are nearing the end of their 40 years of wandering in the desert and have gone through many tests and trials.
God used their time of waiting to enter the promised land as the perfect opportunity to prepare them to face their enemies - but not before they learned to walk in another level of obedience and integrity.
Here are three examples in which God teaches the people of Israel how their words, obedience, and actions go hand in hand with consequences, for better or worse.
Vows and Oaths
The parashah starts with Moses' instructions to the heads of the tribes, explaining to them the importance of treating their vows to the Lord in reverence, taking extra caution to be fully committed:
"When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said." - Numbers 30:2
Often, words can be used casually and without much forethought of the potential consequences they might bring.
Moses was a mediator between God and the people, and God chose him as a mouthpiece to convey his will to the people — which is a great and powerful position to be in.
As a leader, he learned firsthand how important and influential his words were as he was not allowed to enter the promised land after rebuking the people at Meribah.
So it is no surprise that he teaches them one of the most important lessons: your words matter, whether that is an oath, correction, or guidance. If they are used carelessly, you risk making the holy and important things profane or even leading people astray.
Moses even gives examples of cases in which a person should be released from oaths and obligations. Thank God there is a solution even when we over-commit and bite off more than we can chew!
How Words Follow Obedience
God then commands the Israelites to go to war against the Midianites, who followed Balaam's advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord:
"So Moses said to the people, ‘Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites so that they may carry out the Lord's vengeance on them. Send into battle a thousand men from each of the tribes of Israel.’" - Numbers 31:3-4
Although they won the battle, they disobeyed God's instructions by taking women unto themselves:
"The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks, and goods as plunder. They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps." - Numbers 31:9-11
Moses was angry since he gave them instructions, and they did not obey. He then instructed them to cleanse themselves after their disobedience.
After some time, while dividing the plunder between the tribes, they understood their ways were not pleasing to the Lord and showed genuine remorse by collecting an offering to God:
"So we have brought as an offering to the Lord the gold articles each of us acquired—armlets, bracelets, signet rings, earrings and necklaces—to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord." - Numbers 31:50
God wanted to give the promised land in its entirety to the people of Israel. This battle acted as preparation grounds to see whether or not they would heed his instructions when fighting against the gentile nations who possessed the land or if they would fall prey to disobedience.
Mean What You Say
The Reubenites and Gadites decided they did not want to cross the Jordan into the promised land with their people and livestock. This angered Moses, who thought they did not want to go to battle and didn't mind leaving the difficult job of conquering the land to the rest of the tribes.
As they assured him they would fight with their fellow Israelites until all the other tribes had received their inheritance, Moses reiterates just how critical it is that they follow through on their obligation before the Lord:
"Then Moses said to them, ‘If you will do this—if you will arm yourselves before the Lord for battle and if all of you who are armed cross over the Jordan before the Lord until he has driven his enemies out before him— then when the land is subdued before the Lord, you may return and be free from your obligation to the Lord and to Israel. And this land will be your possession before the Lord...but if you fail to do this, you will be sinning against the Lord; and you may be sure that your sin will find you out. Build cities for your women and children, and pens for your flocks, but do what you have promised.’" - Numbers 32:20-27
Moses considered it a sin against the Lord if the Reubenites and Gadites did not fulfill their promises before God and urged them to take it seriously, reminding them that their own actions would hunt them down if they did not follow through.
Passing the Test
Moses recorded all the places the people of Israel stopped along the way to the promised land and reminded them to continue serving him with reverence and obedience as he has taught them in the desert for 40 years:
"On the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho the Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places. Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.’" - Numbers 30:50-53
The common thread weaved through this parashah is just how important our words and actions are to the Lord and how when we choose to submit our ways to the Lord, He will bless our steps, but when we step out of His will, we are not able to reach the promised land, the inheritance God ordained for us.
The people of Israel are an example to us today of how to walk with integrity and not compromise, how to repent when we have gone astray and how to consider our steps carefully before we take them. We all act hastily sometimes and pay the consequences, but God is gracious to forgive us our sins as we repent and turn from our ways.
As we reflect on Parashat Matot-Masei, we thank God for teaching us how to walk with integrity in our words, actions, and commitments.
Let's pray together:
"God, please teach me how to use my words wisely and be intentional about my commitments and actions. Guide me in your ways so that I will walk in your will so I can serve you faithfully."