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Whatsapp with the Vows?

By: Rabbi Eitan Mayer

Why does Parshat Mattot open with instructions about – of all things – vows?

Many commentators point to the previous section, which detailed the sacrifices for each festival and then closed with the following summary comment: “These are the [sacrifices] you shall offer on your festivals – besides your *vows* [meaning sacrifices you have voluntarily promised to offer] and gifts….” Since the Torah mentioned vows peripherally in this previous section, it now, in Parshat Mattot, makes vows its main topic.

But this begs the question: Since the Torah’s topic in the previous section was festival sacrifices, not vows, why in the first place did the Torah need to close that section with a seemingly irrelevant comment about vows – which then itself became our answer to why the Torah makes vows its main topic in Parshat Mattot? Instead of hinging Parshat Mattot’s discussion of vows on a peripheral and unnecessary mention in the previous section, perhaps it would be better to do the opposite: Seek to understand why a discussion of vows appears at this time in Sefer BeMidbar, and then we’ll know why the Torah segues to vows from the previous section about festival sacrifices.

Perhaps vows take on special importance at this point because Bnei Yisrael are about to enter their Land. Soon, they will spread out over a wide area, exchanging the desert-camp lifestyle of the past forty years, in which they all lived in walking distance from one another, for a nation-size lifestyle, in which they will be separated by hundreds of miles.

People behave differently when they are face to face with others than when distance separates them. Who realizes this better than we, the generation which has witnessed the rise of the Internet and the ways it has changed communication? Where once, communication was face-to-face, and then later on at least by mail or by phone, communication now takes place at unlimited distances, in ways which enable complete anonymity, and often between people who have never met one another and never will. At best, this new kind of communication is less personal; at worst, it brings out a side in us we had kept hidden before. With distance and anonymity, people seem to feel free to be rude or even vicious; freed of the fear of being embarrassed or punished, they feel unbound by their normal ethics, and often by their own usual personal modesty.

As our nation left the desert and entered its land, creating a new reality in which communication would be far less personal, perhaps the Torah realized that it was crucial to emphasize the importance of keeping one’s word. Bnei Yisrael did not yet have Whatsapp, Snapchat and Twitter, but if they could not trust one another at a distance, if they could not accord one another respect despite distance and lack of personal ties, the nation would never succeed.

This lesson is even more crucial today, in the age of cyber-bullying, cyber-impersonation, cyber-fraud, cyber-profanity, cyber-rudeness, and cyber-immodesty. We are challenged and reminded to stick to our ethics and values even when the chances of being caught or punished are low and to respect our own Tzelem Elokim and the Tzelem Elokim on the other end of our communication even when we’ve never met and never will.





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