Parashat Matot- Words are Not Cheap
Parashat Matot begins with the subject of Nedarim – vows. There are 613 Misvot in the Torah, and nobody can ever add another Misva. However, a person can take a personal vow rendering something forbidden. This means that if a person declares that coffee is forbidden, coffee becomes as forbidden to him as pork. Just by uttering a sentence, he transforms a beverage that is permissible for all Jews in the world into something that is for him not kosher.
The law of Nedarim reflects the immense power of the spoken word. Judaism does not believe that "words are cheap." Words are expensive – and remarkably so. In fact, as we read in the very first chapter of the Torah, God created the world through a series of utterances – "God said: Let there be light"; "God said: Let the waters assemble"; etc. The world was created with words – showing us just how powerful words are. And this is also the message of Nedarim – that the spoken word can yield very far-reaching effects.
Another area in Halacha where this is starkly manifest is marriage. When a bride and groom first enter the Hupa, there is no Halachic connection between them whatsoever. They are boyfriend and girlfriend; no formal relationship exists between them. If the bride decides at the moment she walks under the canopy to back out, she may, and there are no Halachic repercussions. How does this reality change? How does she become the groom’s wife, requiring the process of a Get if one party wishes to dissolve the marriage?
The answer is nine words: "Hareh At Mekudeshet Li Be’taba’at Zu Ke’dat Moshe Ve’Yisrael." By uttering these words, the groom transforms him and his bride from close friends to husband and wife.
It is no secret why words were chosen as the medium with which a marriage is created – because words are what makes or breaks a marriage. Words are what produce the status of marriage because words are what will define the marriage from that moment henceforth. The bride and groom are told that words have immense power and must be used wisely and carefully. A hurtful word can cause irreparable damage to a relationship. Words have the capacity to create, and have the capacity to destroy.
The story is told of a woman whose husband frequently insulted her. She would respond angrily, which in turn provoked an even more offensive response, resulting in a spiral of back-and-forth shouting and name-calling. Exasperated, the woman consulted with her Rabbi, who gave her a curious piece of advice. He said that each time her husband said something hurtful to her, instead of responding, she should take a hammer and bang a nail into some surface.
And so, that day, when the husband insulted the woman, she didn’t say a word. She went upstairs with a hammer, and banged a nail into a wall. When he insulted her again for doing something so foolish, she again banged a nail into a wall.
This went on for several weeks, until finally the husband wanted to know what was going on. The wife told him about the Rabbi’s suggestion, and showed him the approximately 100 nails in the wall.
"I offended you so many times?" the husband asked.
"Yes," the wife confirmed. "Each nail is another time you said something hurtful to me."
"Well," the husband said, "it should work the other way, as well. Every time I say something nice to you, you should remove a nail from the wall." The idea sounded reasonable, so the wife agreed.
Sure enough, the husband starting showering his wife with compliments. He praised her for her meals, her appearance, and her personality, told her how much she meant to him and said that he loved her. Each time, a nail came out of the wall. Finally, the day arrived when the last nail was pulled out.
"You see?" the husband said. "It’s all fixed now. The nails are all gone."
"Not quite," the wife replied. "Yes, the nails are gone – but look at all the holes that are left in the wall. They still need to be filled."
Harsh words leave deep "holes" in the heart, wounds that in some instances can take a lifetime to heal. It’s not so simple just to apologize and then expect everything to be back to normal. Many of us can probably still feel the scars left by a hurtful comment made to us by a teacher or friend decades ago. The popular adage, "Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never harm me" is simply false. Names can harm us – and even more severely than sticks and stones. Physical wounds heal, but emotional wounds, in many instances, don’t go away.
This is one of the vital messages of Nedarim. Words are not cheap – they have immense, long-lasting effects, and we must therefore exercise extreme caution in what, when and how we speak, lest we cause damage that cannot be undone.