Kalev ben Yefuneh, now 80 years old, nasi of Yehudah, a legend for his righteous stand against the meraglim some forty years earlier, strode into Moshe’s tent. He was accompanied by Shmuel ben Amihud, a newly appointed nasi replacing the deceased criminal Zimri. With them came 10 more leaders – Elidad ben Kislon, Buki ben Yagli, Chaniel ben Efod, each the leader of an entire shevet/tribe.
These twelve governors had been summoned by Moshe Rabbeinu, their great leader. Moshe had just announced his imminent death and appointed Yehoshua to succeed him, and now he gathered his governors… but for what? What would he tell them?
“וידבר משה אל ראשי המטות לבני ישראל לאמר זה הדבר אשר צוה ה' – And Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Jewish people, saying, ‘This is what Gd has commanded.’”
The leaders waited with bated breath.
“איש כי ידור נדר לה' ... לא יחל דברו – When someone makes a vow to Gd, he shall not make his word mundane. He must fulfill everything that comes from his mouth.”
At this point, perhaps, Achihud ben Shlomi turns to Paltiel ben Azan with a quizzical look: For laws of purity and shemitah and kashrut and inheritance Moshe didn’t summon us, but he gathered us from our important business to say, “People must keep their word?”
But then Moshe continued with laws about nullifying vows, about recognizing that commitments made in all sincerity might be in error, and might not be worth upholding.
And with this addition, perhaps, the reason for gathering the leaders of bnei yisrael became much more clear. This was a message that they, of all people, needed to hear – the message of nullifying one’s word.
Certainly, the laws of vows do apply to the entire nation – but Moshe first presented this message to the leaders, as a message targeted toward them. There is no דבר אל בני ישראל here – Moshe doesn’t say, “Tell this to the nation.” It’s a message which educates the leaders, first and foremost, in how to do their jobs.
These leaders would be crucial for the post-Moshe era. Moshe had just appointed Yehoshua as the federal leader of the Jewish people, but the nesiim, the tribal governors, would still be needed.
• There would be land to distribute.
• There would be disputes to resolve.
• The Jewish people in Israel would live tribally, doing almost nothing as a coherent whole.
• Even war would be handled by individual tribes, not by the nation.
And so Moshe follows up his appointment of Yehoshua by telling the nesiim: You still have a leadership role to play – and this is how I want you to play it:
לא יחל דברו – In your capacity as leaders, you may not make your words mundane political tools, saying one thing and meaning another, playing politics with carefully crafted remarks, saying what people want to hear in order to keep them happy. Your words are not חול, they are קודש - not mundane, but sacred.
But, at the same time, Moshe warns that a true leader recognizes the limitations of his קודש words. Chazal warned us, “ואל תשתחווה לדבריך, Do not bow to your words” – do not view your words as a sacrosanct idol, to be preserved and honored at all costs.
Perhaps better than any other Jewish leader, Moshe knows this balance.
• Moshe grew up at the knee of Paroh, a man who never learned how to back down, who pretended to retreat in the face of each מכה only to revert to his stubbornness in the end. Moshe saw what happens to a leader who cannot change course.
• But then, on the other hand, Moshe himself was sent on a mission in which he could not back down, in which he was to stand face-to-face with Pharoah over a period of months repeating variations on the same words , שלח את עמי, Send out my nation, no fewer than seven times.
• Which is not to say that even Moshe had the balance between backbone and flexibility quite right.
When Moshe charged Yehoshua with his mission, he said, כי אתה תבוא את העם הזה, Yehoshua, you will come into Israel with the nation – leading with the people, not forcing them to obey your words.
But HaShem corrected Moshe, saying, כי אתה תביא את העם הזה, You will bring this nation into Israel yourself – as the gemara elaborates, טול מקל והך על קדקדם, If they don’t listen then take a stick and hit them over the head!
And so Moshe warns the leaders: You will need to get this balance right.
One might argue that this lesson is obvious; do you really need Moshe Rabbeinu to tell you to be flexible? Does it really take the greatest leader of all time to remind you that Paroh is a bad role model?
Probably not – but the challenge for a Nasi is more complex, because a Nasi speaks with Divinely-invested authority; Gd warned the nation, ונשיא בעמך לא תאור, Do not attack the nasi; Gd required that we honor these people, and follow them, and so their words carry great weight. Further, the nasi speaks on behalf of government, on behalf of law and order, on behalf of the best interests of their shevatim and of the nation as a whole.
Seen in that light, a Nasi faces a great challenge: He must honor his words as Divinely-authorized edicts, but he must simultaneously override the temptation of claiming infalliblity.
Historically, there were times when the nesiim backed down on their Divinely inspired commands.
For example: A few decades after our parshah the tribe of Binyamin descended into lawlessness, and those nesiim, acting on Gd’s instructions to wage war against Binyamin, declared a religious ban against marrying anyone from that tribe. But when they saw the decline of Binyamin, they reversed themselves, recognizing that one cannot bow to his words, even words uttered in the name of Gd.
This is an important lesson for religious leaders, but it is also important for parents, because parents, too, are religious leaders, speaking with Divine authority.
When the Torah instructs, כבד את אביך ואת אמך, Honor your father and mother –
When the Torah warns, איש אמו ואביו תיראו, Have awe of your mother and father –
HaShem invests parents with religious authority like that of the nesiim, such that when parents speak to their children, Gd endorses their words.
Add to this the fact that we instruct our children for their own good, their own physical and spiritual well-being - telling them to get ready for school, to do their homework, to eat their vegetables, to wear a yarmulka or to come to shul or to give tzedakah – and it’s easy for us, like the nesiim, to view our words as inflexibly קודש.
So Moshe warns the nesiim, and he warns all of us: לא יחל דברו, don’t make your words mundane, but, on the other hand, know when to give in.
[I closed with a message for parents who are celebrating the birth of their children this week.]
1. The opening thought - the perplexity of the nesiim and the appropriateness of Moshe's message for them - is built around a thought from Rav Baruch Yashar in בין השיטין של תורה.
2. "Do not bow to your words" is from Kallah Rabti 4:17. Moshe's charge to Yehoshua is in Sanhedrin 8a. The battle with Binyamin is in Shoftim 20-21.
3. We had celebrations for three babies this week. If not for that, I might have used Berachot 34a as the closer. HaShem vows to destroy the nation after the Eigel, and Moshe nullifies the neder. HaShem is omniscient, He knows He won't carry it out - so why make the neder in the first place? Perhaps to teach Moshe about the possibility of hafarat nedarim, of backing down.