Oaths and Shared Responsibility

by Rabbi Iris Richman

What do Tahrir Square in Cairo and the Kotel in Jerusalem share in common?  If you answered – a democratic impulse, rejection of totalitarian religious views or people uniting for a common cause – you only get partial credit.  They also share a much more disturbing common practice – violence against women.  As of July 3, at Tahrir Square: “Human Rights Watch says there have been at least 91 mob attacks on women in the last four days, with nearly all of the perpetrators going unpunished.” http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2013/07/egypt-morsi-deadline/66815/   So too at the Kotel, where violence against women takes a different form, including stones and objects thrown, spitting and death threats. How can it be that this violence is present at two sites of national significance for members of two of the world’s great faiths?

As we approach this month of Av, we celebrate the beginning of the month – Rosh Hodesh – and continue with some of the darkest days on the Jewish calendar – the first nine days of Av, culminating in Tisha b’Av/9th of Av, when our tradition tells us that both of our Temples were destroyed.  We are taught that 2000 years ago, the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam – groundless hatred among Jews.

How do we put ourselves back on the right track, detach democracy from violence – especially against women – and focus on what really matters?  The first part of this week’s Torah reading, Mattot-Mas’ei, focuses on an unlikely subject for a discussion of pluralism and peace – preparations for war.  The Israelites are anticipating crossing the Jordan and conquering the Promised Land of Israel.  The first thing that we learn about the tribes of Reuven and Gad is that they share something in common that sets them apart from the rest of the Israelites – they “owned cattle in very great numbers.”  Num. 32:1.  And because of these holdings, they want to stay right where they are.  The Promised Land?  Not for them.  Our Rabbis picked up on this misguided priority system, noting that even after they were chastised by Moses, and only after focusing on their cattle, did these tribes then focus on establishing “towns for our children”.  Num. 32:16. (Num. Rabba 22:9).  And, another commentary adds, that, despite the Torah’s statement about how many cattle these two tribes had – in fact, they did not have any more cattle than their fellow tribes, they just spent more time focusing on their cattle than any other tribe.  Etz Hayim commentary, citing Midrash haGadol.

One might have anticipated that the response to this focus on narrow self-interest and the callous refusal to participate in the common cause of living as one people in the Land of Israel, would be a Divine smiting, or a plague, or the earth opening up under their feet – look what happened to Korach and company.  But in fact, even without consulting God, Moses knows just what to do.

It’s not an accident that this week’s Torah reading begins by reminding us of the power of words.  Men’s vows (though not women’s) are sacrosanct.  “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips”.  (Num. 30:3)  Words are binding.

As the tribes of Reuven and Gad threaten to secede from the Israelite settlement of the land of Israel, Moses notes the error of their ways, and compares their refusal to join their destiny with the destiny of their people, to the spies’ disparagement of the ability of the people to enter the Land of Israel.  Because of the spies’ words, the people were discouraged from entering Israel and forced to wander in the desert.  Moses warns Reuven and Gad of the result of a failure to join the Israelites, “you will bring calamity upon all this people”.  Num. 32:15. Thus warned, they hastily offer a compromise.  Reuven and Gad’s people will first build the infrastructure for their animals and families – in that order – and only then join the front lines of the Israelites entering the Land of Israel.  But they take an oath – and literally, they “step up” — to stay with the battle “until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion” in the Land of Israel and will return to the other side of the Jordan River only after that has been completed.  Num. 32:18.

Moses accepts this oath as binding, and thus averts an insurrection.  Writing this as tanks enter Tahrir Square to overturn a President who believes he was elected according to law and asserts an ongoing desire to fulfill his oath of office, we understand all too well that oaths take many forms, some of them morally repugnant and some even deadly.

There are vows that diminish the one who makes the vow.  “The sources also speak of vows made out of spite and enmity, for instance, … where A bans his property against B’s enjoyment of it.  This kind of vow is treated as more unworthy than any other for obvious reasons.”   “Vows” in Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.  Unfortunately in present day Israel, we live with the consequences of such vows at the Kotel, where one group regards the Kotel as though it were their private property which they can withdraw from full access by the other 92% of the Jewish people.

Consideration for others in one’s vows by words and actions is more than just a courtesy.  One of the reasons for the destruction of the Second Temple was the failure to take others into account.  “Ulla said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because they [its inhabitants] had no shame for one another, for it is written: ‘They should have been ashamed when they committed abomination; yet, they were not at all ashamed [… therefore they shall fall]’”.  Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119b, quoting Jeremiah 6:15.

And, in the well known dispute between Kamza and bar Kamza, also cited by the Sages as one of the actions of sinat hinam/groundless hatred that brought about the Second Temple’s destruction, bar Kamza’s spite extended to informing on the Jews to the Emperor, by falsely posing a test of making a blemish on a sacrificial animal offered by the Emperor, that he expected that the Rabbis would disqualify from sacrifice because of the blemish.  “The Rabbis were inclined to offer it [despite the blemish] in order not to offend the Government.  Said R. Zechariah b. Abkulas to them: People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar.  …  R. Yochanan thereupon remarked: Through the scrupulousness of R. Zechariah b. Abkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.”  Babylonian Talmud, Gittin, 55b-56a.

We don’t need to look back 2000 years for examples of what can befall us from overzealousness and one-dimensional vows that fail to take our fellows into account.  Not so long ago, our experience in pursuing religious division and adding “scrupulousness” again brought us severe harm.  “On September 23, 1928, the Jews set up a temporary mehitzah at the Kotel for Yom Kippur.  The next morning, it was removed by Kitroach, the Deputy Governor of Jerusalem. On August 15, 1929, on Tisha B’av, the Betar Youth Movement organized a protest demonstration at the Kotel. The Mufti then organized counter-demonstrations at the Kotel and on the Temple Mount and spread the lie that the Jews were desecrating the Muslim holy sites.  On August 23, the Arabs began to riot and subsequently murdered 133 Jews and injured 340 in Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and elsewhere.  The British and the League of Nations then sent commissions to Palestine.  The latter Commission decided in 1931 to maintain the status quo at the Kotel. The Jews could pray at the Kotel, read from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the last day of Pesah and Sukkot and on Shavuot and bring in specific items of furniture such as the Torah reading table.  They were not allowed to blow the shofar. (Ben Dov, pp. 128-135; Hacohen, pp. 59-63).  Thus, ironically, the attempt to erect a mehitzah at the Kotel on Yom Kippur 1928 led indirectly to the Arab pogroms of August 1929.”  “Is The Entire Kotel Plaza Really A Synagogue?”, Volume 4, Issue No. 3, February 2010, Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin. http://www.schechter.edu/responsa.aspx?ID=48

We stand on many thresholds – we prepare to enter the Land of Israel in our Torah reading, we watch with concern the violence and threats – both at Tahrir Square and the Kotel, and we begin to think about both Rosh Hodesh and the month of Av.  Let us consider – how do we avert reliving our repeated collective amnesia about the consequences of standing up  — only for ourselves?  When we make an oath that takes into account both God and one’s people, as did the tribes of Reuven and Gad, one has made a lasting and valuable oath.   As the Jerusalem Talmud comments on our parashah, one’s oaths must “be judged favorably not only by God but by one’s neighbors as well.”  Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 3:2.  May we be granted the vision to see the power of all of our words, may we remember to take each other into account when we utter those words and not succumb to oaths or actions which would deny others their personhood, or their fullest expressions of spirit and relationship with God.  Let us also insure above all else, that our certainty or scrupulousness about our own needs and oaths will never again bring us to violence, death and destruction, but to a place of reconciliation and peace.


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