Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Whose Fault is It?: Parashat Mattot-Massei

            When my brother and I were younger, we would go to great lengths to prove that the broken, late, spoiled______________ (fill in the blank) was not our fault.  "It's not my fault" may be one of the phrases my mom and dad heard most when we were growing up.  Somehow, I have a feeling that the regularity of this response was not unique to the Isaacs household.  We all have a natural inclination to assign blame to others or to downplay the gravity of a sin that we have committed.  Increasingly we live in a culture where we are told to "forgive ourselves" or "let it go" when we have a difficult time dealing with our guilt.  However, the Torah does not let us off the hook so easily.  If anything, the Scripture does exactly the opposite.
           In this week's portion, Matot-Massei, we learn about the responsibility related to taking vows.  On the whole, the Torah is not a fan of vows because making pledges is a serious matter.  It is a grave sin to break a promise, and as a result, the Book of Ecclesiastes adjures against making vows in the first place. 
          In Matot-Massei, we learn who is responsible for a woman who makes a vow.  On one hand, it is extremely sexist that a woman's male relatives are held to account for her words.  At the same time, there is a larger lesson that can be learned from Numbers 13:16.  If a woman's husband hears her vow, upholds it temporarily, and then revokes it, he becomes responsible for the damage of her words.  Endorsing her error makes the husband culpable for her sin.  Rashi expands on the Torah's words, "...if someone causes his fellow to stumble, he bears his punishments in his place."

16. If he revokes them after having heard [them], he shall bear her iniquity.טז. וְאִם הָפֵר יָפֵר אֹתָם אַחֲרֵי שָׁמְעוֹ וְנָשָׂא אֶת עֲוֹנָהּ:

he shall bear her iniquity: He takes her place. We learn from here that if someone causes his fellow to stumble, he bears his punishments in his place. — [Sifrei Mattoth 30]ונשא את עונה: הוא נכנס תחתיה. למדנו מכאן שהגורם תקלה לחבירו הוא נכנס 

           When we endorse or encourage someone else to err, the sin becomes our own.  The Torah has no patience for fancy or elaborate defenses.  Rather, it puts forth an approach to life that demands mutual accountability in order to create a just society.  When we enable and excuse the sins of others, we create a wretched world with them, and the guilt is shared.   One of the features that should distinguish a child from an adult, a Torah Jew from someone who lives a life of self-gratification, is the ability to accept responsibility for her influence on others, and the willingness to accept blame gracefully.  
          This week let us focus on our power to influence others, for the positive and the negative.  Let us measure our words carefully, and use them only to lead people to lives of greater righteousness.  Excusing ourselves from the sins of our society may feel good, but it is a direct affront to God's teaching.  Let us know when to accept blame, and be vigilant in preventing others from stumbling down the wrong path.

Shabbat Shalom!