Friday, August 31, 2012

Keep Your Word, Keep the Torah!

Parshat Ki Tetze

by Rabbi Avi Billet

When one breaks down Devarim 23:24, properly, according to its cantillation marks, a proper translation could be "What has come out of your lips you must keep and carry out (or "do"); as you have vowed to Hashem your God a gift, that you have spoken with your mouth."

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan translated the same verse as follows: "But when you have spoken, be careful of your word and keep the pledge that you have vowed to God your Lord." And Artscroll: "You shall observe and carry out what emerges from your lips, just as you vowed a voluntary gift to Hashem, your God, whatever you spoke with your mouth."

I like Rabbi Kaplan's "translation" mostly because it is not a translation. It is clearly an "interpretation" which aims to make the confusing language of the verse easily understood. Having said that, Rabbi Kaplan ignores the fact that following the rules of "munach etnachta" (the connecting cantillation mark that sometimes - and in this case - leads to the main break in the middle of the verse), the words "you must keep and carry out" (or "be careful and keep") must go together.

This is why when the Machsom L'fi people (an organization committed to fighting the evils of Lashon Hara and gossip) take this verse to indicate a need to guard your lips from evil speech (a nice sentiment, indeed), they are taking the verse completely out of context, and are not even presenting it properly. The intent of the verse is for a person to be careful to keep promises. It is not a referendum against lashon hara. [There are other such referendums, of course, but this is not one of them.]

A grammarian can literally have a field-day with this verse. Does one have to keep a vow that has already been made? A vow that you will have made? Or a vow that will be made in the future? What is the proper tense of the sentence? What is the intent behind the vow of which the verse speaks?

Many focus on the word "nedava," as in a voluntary gift, to suggest the verse is referring to animal sacrifices, or other Temple-worthy gifts (Rosh Hashana 6a). The Midrash and Talmud go so far to include gifts that one has merely thought of giving in one's heart – the word "nedava" is so often attached to a "n'div lev" that even just a feeling of dedication could be sufficient to make one obligated to follow through (Shavuot 26b). This is not the literal meaning of the verse, of course, but which institution will turn down gifts people pledge in their hearts?

In a sense, the message is to be careful of what you say – not so much because it might be evil, but because it may end up costing you a lot of money. And if you pledge or make a financial commitment to the Temple – your word is literally your bond. This is the general approach of Ibn Ezra and Rabbenu Bachaye. Chizkuni looks at the literal words attaching a traditional warning to the term "tishmor" (to guard) as if to say "Be careful and watch over what you have said you will not do" while the "V'asita" (and you should do) is a positive assertion to "do what you said you will do – as long as it is for God's sake."

Rabbenu Bachaye interprets the verse on three different levels: Pshat (the simple meaning), Midrashic, followed by a Kabbalistic interpretation, the latter of which will now be presented: What comes out of your mouth parallels what comes from God's mouth – just as God does not need to swear He will do something He says He'll do, every person should fulfill everything that comes out of his mouth, even if "he did not promise."

This verse is an allusion to the covenant of the mouth, which refers to the power of speech that only humans possess. The mouth is the seventh of the openings of the face – two ears, two eyes, two nostrils and the mouth. God chose the #7 – He built 7 skies and chose the 7th (for his domicile); he made 7 days and chose the 7th for His special day; and He chose the mouth to be the greatest as it sings His praises (a warning not to misuse the mouth comes in Vayikra 22:32)

When Israel violated or went back on their word, Moshe said to them "Why have you gone against God's Word?" (Bamidbar 14:41) This is why it says, "Guard what comes out of your mouth," as if to say "You must fulfill what comes out of your mouth." 

Rabbenu Bachaye concludes his kabbalistic interpretation referring to the promise the people made in donating to the Mishkan. But he also mentions that the people heard the Ten Commandments.

While he does not extend his thought further, I think he gives us enough of a hint of the identity of the promise referred to in the verse, that "was made" – as in, in the past tense.

When the people stood at Sinai and collectively cried out "We will do and we will listen," they were essentially declaring a binding allegiance to God and His Torah for themselves and their posterity.

The instruction to "Guard and Do what comes out of your mouth" is a reminder of a commitment to the Torah, as it was originally intended in the manner transmitted and eventually recorded in the Talmud by the scholars and teachers of Israel. The "gift" vowed to God, perhaps even "voluntarily" is our unchanging dedication to Him. It may have begun as volunteering, but, as Rabbenu Bechaye says, your word is your bond, even if you never said, "I promise."

As we inch closer to Rosh Hashana, let us pray that the collective Jewish people will remember the declaration of our ancestors and strive to keep our ancestors word as we rededicate ourselves once again to keeping the our promise to keep the Torah.

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