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We read at the beginning of our parashah (30:3), “If a man takes a vow to Hashem or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not profane his word.” Our Sages interpret this verse: “He shall not profane his word, but others may profane his word”–teaching that a person who took a vow may, under certain circumstances, have the vow annulled by a Torah scholar. The Rambam counts annulling vows as one of the 613 mitzvot.

R’ Moshe Shick z”l (1807-1879; rabbi of Huszt, Hungary) writes that there is a profound lesson to be learned from this mitzvah. It teaches that human speech is not a physical characteristic of man. Rather, it is a spiritual characteristic. On the verse (Bereishit 2:7), “Hashem Elokim formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life; and man became a living being,” the Aramaic translation and commentary Onkelos states: “He blew into him a spirit that speaks.” Speech is the connection between the intellect/soul and the body. Therefore, only thoughtful speech is worthy of being called human speech. Speech should be used for prayer and Torah study, because speech is the outward expression of the soul.

How do we know this? From the fact that it is possible to annul vows. When a Torah scholar annuls a vow, he is able to do so because the person who made the vow presents evidence that he took the vow without proper forethought. He declares that, had he thought of such-and-such or known this-or-that, he never would have taken the vow. Speech without proper thought is not human speech, and that is why the Torah scholar may declare it null and void as if it never existed. Proper speech, on the other hand, is thoughtful speech. (Maharam Shick Al Taryag Mitzvot)

“He shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do.” (30:3)

R’ Yehoshua Leib Diskin z”l (1817-1898; rabbi of Brisk, Poland; later in Yerushalayim) was once present at a hesped / eulogy for one his students. Following the hesped, a “Kail Malai” was recited, and the assembled crowd dispersed.

R’ Diskin then approached the gabbai and handed him a coin. He said, “I am giving this coin to charity in memory of the deceased on behalf of everyone who was present today.” He explained: When the gabbai recites a Kail Malai, he often says the phrase, “in the merit that all of the congregation promises to give charity on behalf of the elevation of the soul (of the departed).” I, said R’ Diskin, am afraid that people will forget to fulfill this vow that was made on their behalf, so I am acting as their representative. (Quoted in Ve’karata La’Shabbat Oneg)

“Moshe was angry with the commanders of the army, the officers of the thousands and the officers of the hundreds, who came from the legion of the battle.”

Why was Moshe angry? Did the officers disobey any commandment of the Torah or any command Moshe had given them?

R’ Yehuda He’chassid z”l (Germany; 1150-1217) explains: Even if one was never taught or never commanded about something, if he is intelligent enough that he should have known, he is held accountable. Moshe knew that these officers were wise and knowledgeable in Torah and that they could have figured out what was expected of them even without an explicit commandment. Therefore, he was angry at them. (Sefer Chassidim, no. 153)

“Then you shall be vindicated [literally, ‘clean’] before Hashem and from Yisrael.” (32:22)

R’ Moshe Sofer z”l (1762-1839; rabbi and rosh yeshiva in Pressburg, Hungary; known as the Chatam Sofer) writes in a letter to a student:

Shalom to you and shalom to your helpmate, my veteran student!

You have described to me your doings, which did not bring me pleasure. Know, my son and student, may you live long, that I have always worried about the verse, “You shall be clean before Hashem and from Yisrael.” These two obligations–being innocent in the eyes of Hashem and being innocent in the eyes of other Jews–are two heavy yokes on our backs. Moreover, it is much, much easier to fulfill the first one–being innocent in Hashem’s eyes–than the second–being innocent in man’s eyes–because people tend to think all kinds of strange thoughts, gossiping while spinning thread in the moonlight [an expression borrowed from Sotah 6:1], etc. The punishment for not being innocent in the eyes of man is likewise very much greater than the punishment for not being innocent in Hashem’s eyes, for the Gemara says at the end of Tractate Yoma that there is no atonement for Chillul Hashem / desecration of the Name of G-d, may the Merciful One save us. . .

The Chatam Sofer continues: I have thought a great deal about whether it is possible at all to observe this mitzvah completely. Perhaps it is to this that our Sages refer when they say that there is no tzaddik who does good and does not sin. By this they mean that even when he does good, it is impossible for him not to sin by becoming suspect in the eyes of some people. I am not worthy to talk about prior generations; nevertheless, it is Torah [i.e., I am merely interpreting a verse, and therefore I may say the following]. I lean toward saying that the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuven, to whom this verse was said [after they asked to receive their portion on the east bank of the Jordan], and who did their best to vindicate themselves by serving as the vanguard of the army for 14 years, did not completely fulfill their obligation to vindicate themselves. After all, it is not for nothing that these tribes were exiled before all the other tribes. Our Sages apply to them the verse (Mishlei 20:21), “If an inheritance is seized hastily in the beginning, its end will not be blessed.” (She’eilot U’teshuvot Chatam Sofer VI no.59)

“Speak to Bnei Yisrael and say to them, ‘Ki you are crossing the Jordan to the land of Canaan – you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the Land before you; and you shall destroy all their prostration stones; all their molten images shall you destroy; and all your high places shall you demolish’.” (33:51-52)

The word “ki” in this verse usually is translated “when,” so that the verse would say, “When you cross the Jordan . . . .” However, writes R’ Yosef Chaim David Azulai z”l (1724-1806; Eretz Yisrael and Italy), it also can be translated “because.” He explains: Our Sages say that if Moshe Rabbeinu had entered Eretz Yisrael, he would have destroyed the yetzer hara for idolatry. Furthermore, Bnei Yisrael would have entered a Garden of Eden-like existence.

However, this was not to be; Moshe Rabbeinu was not going to enter the Holy Land. Therefore, Hashem commanded him to say, “Because you – but not I – are crossing the Jordan,” therefore I must caution you to destroy all vestiges of idolatry. (Nachal Kedumim)

“The kohanim did not say, ‘Where is Hashem?’–even those charged with teaching the Torah did not know Me . . .” (From the haftarah–Yirmiyah 2:8)

R’ Yisrael Meir Kagan z”l (the Chafetz Chaim; died 1933) explains: The prophet Yirmiyah is bemoaning the fact that in the period just before the destruction of the (first) Bet Hamikdash, even the kohanim–those individuals devoted to serving Hashem, and who were accustomed to seeing miracles on a daily basis (see Avot 5:5)–did not recognize His Providence. This can only be because they removed Hashem from their thoughts. Likewise, those entrusted with studying and teaching the Torah did not look in the Torah for lessons about His great mercy, for if they had, they would immediately have returned to Hashem. (Ahavat Chessed: Preface)

Shabbat Preparations: Body and Soul

One should arise early on Erev Shabbat to prepare what is needed for Shabbat. One should make an effort to be personally involved in Shabbat preparations [i.e., men should not leave Shabbat preparations to their wives alone, nor should the preparations be left to household help]. (Shulchan Aruch 250:1)

R’ Yisrael Meir Hakohen z”l (the Chafetz Chaim; died 1933) comments on this halachah: The mitzvah of honoring Shabbat applies to every individual. It is written (Yeshayah 58:13), “You shall proclaim the Shabbat an oneg / ‘delight,’ the holy one of Hashem, ‘honored one’.” [This teaches that it is a mitzvah to honor Shabbat.] And, it is a general rule that it is preferable to perform a mitzvah oneself than to rely on an agent.

The Chafetz Chaim continues: One should think thoughts of repentance and examine one’s deeds every Erev Shabbat, for Shabbat is called a “bride” and greeting the Shabbat is like greeting royalty, which one would not do dressed in rags dirtied by sin. One should clean away cobwebs on Erev Shabbat, and certainly one should dust the house while it is still day. All of this falls within the definition of honoring Shabbat. One should imagine how one would prepare his house for a visit by a human king, and that is how one should prepare for the arrival of Shabbat. (Mishnah Berurah 250:3)

R’ Mattisyahu Solomon shlita (mashgiach ruchani of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J.) observes: The Chafetz Chaim combines a discussion of spiritual preparations for Shabbat with a discussion of physical preparations. It would appear that he is teaching that cleaning the house is merely a means to awaken oneself to cleanse one’s soul before Shabbat. Only then can one properly greet the King of Kings when He comes to spend the holy day with us. (Matnat Chaim: Shabbat p.9)