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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Matos 5771 "Serious Business"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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MATOS 5771


Drop a pebble in the water: just a splash and it is gone;
But there's half-a-hundred ripples, circling on and on and on,
Spreading, spreading from the center, flowing on out to the sea.
And there is no way of telling, where the end is going to be.

Drop a pebble in the water: in a minute you forget,
But there's little waves a-flowing, and there's ripples circling yet,
And those little waves a-flowing to a great big wave have grown;
You've disturbed a mighty river just by dropping in a stone.

Drop an unkind word, or careless: in a minute it is gone;
But there's half-a-hundred ripples, circling on and on and on.
They keep spreading, spreading, spreading from the center as they go,
And there is no way to stop them, once you've started them to flow.

Drop an unkind word, or careless: in a minute you forget;
But there's little waves a-flowing, and there's ripples circling yet,
And perhaps in some sad heart a mighty wave of tears you've stirred,
And disturbed a life was happy where you dropped that unkind word.

Drop a word of cheer and kindness: just a flash and it is gone;
But there's half-a-hundred ripples circling on and on and on,
Bearing hope and joy and comfort on each splashing, dashing wave
Till you wouldn't believe the volume of the one kind word you gave.

Drop a word of cheer and kindness: in a minute you forget;
But there's gladness still a-swelling, and there's joy circling yet,
And you've rolled a wave of comfort whose sweet music can be heard
Over miles and miles of water just by dropping one kind word.

James W. Foley (1874-1939)

Yom Kippur, the day of pristine purity and contriteness and forgiveness, begins with the prayer of Kol Nidrei. The very words Kol Nidrei seem to stir us. We are reminded of the intensity of the moment when young and old, men and women, are gathered in somber silence. The elders and scholars surround the chazzan clutching the holy Torah scrolls against their chest. There is a palpable tenseness as the congregation awaits the commencement of the ancient haunting melody.

And yet the words of Kol Nidrei seem to be surprisingly basic. The paragraph does not discuss the foibles of man, the greatness of G-d, or our deepest desire to improve and become greater. Not at all! The prayer is merely a reiteration of the annulment of vows that was recited by each individual man on the morning prior to Rosh Hashana. The prayer contains a lengthy listing of all variant forms of vows and oaths expressed in numerous manners. It then concludes with a declaration that all those oaths – uttered willfully or inadvertently from last Yom Kippur until now - should be null and void.

It is only after the paragraph has been recited three times, slowly and meticulously, that we even utter our first impassioned plea that G-d forgive our sins.

Why is Kol Nidrei the appropriate introduction to the great and holy day?

“Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying… If a man takes a vow or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do.”

When one vows to do something, or to refrain from doing something, the Torah views that pledge with tremendous seriousness. Violating one’s word is referred to as a ‘desecration of one’s word’.

The Gemara[1] relates, “Before a Jew is born an oath is administered to him in heaven charging him, ‘Be righteous and be wicked; and even if the whole world is judging you by your actions and tells you that you are righteous, regard yourself as wicked’.”

Throughout our lives we are adjoined to the oath we accepted upon ourselves at the moment before our souls first descended to this world. Then, when a person leaves this world he must testify whether he fulfilled his original vow or not.

At the moments when we usher in Yom Kippur in a sea of white reminiscent of the purity of the beginning and end of life, we conjure up the subliminal memory of our original oath. All other oaths can be annulled but that original oath can never be negated, and it must remain at the fore of our conscience.

Moreover, our entire service on Yom Kippur is based on our speech. We certainly must change and improve our actions. But the first step is the words we utter with passion and feeling, imploring G-d for forgiveness and accepting upon ourselves to try to be better this year.

In a world which does not appreciate the value of words the Torah reminds us that words are the most precious commodities we have. The world preaches that ‘talk is cheap’, but that is a terribly erroneous statement. In truth, talk may be easy - but its implications and consequences can be extremely expensive and costly.

Before we begin the Yom Kippur service, the ultimate day of prayer, we remind ourselves just how precious our words are. We can create new realities with our words. We can utter a vow which we are bound to observe, though we would have had no such obligation were we not to have said anything. In the time of the Bais Hamikdash, with a mere declaration one could sanctify an animal by declaring it sanctified to be brought as an offering. Were he to then use that animal for his personal benefit he would transgress a serious sin, because of his own words. That realization is vital on Yom Kippur and therefore it is the introduction of the holy day.

Words of Torah, words of prayer, words of encouragement and support – build and rebuild. Malicious words, painful words, hurtful words – destroy and cause irreparable damage.

This lesson is especially pertinent to the Three Weeks. The gemara relates that the second Bais Hamikdash was destroyed because of baseless hatred. From the fact that we are still in exile it is apparent that we have yet to rectify that sin within our national soul. The austere laws of vows and oaths remind us of the Torah’s perspective about the value of our words. With our words we can connect to G-d and to others. At the same time, with our words we can sever connections and destroy relationships.

The power is in our mouths!

“An oath is administered to him: Be righteous and not wicked”

“He shall not desecrate his word”

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[1] The gemara (Niddah, chapter 3) begins with the word “Tanya (they taught in a baraisa)”. The holy sefer haTanya commences with this baraisa. The opening paragraphs of the sefer discuss in detail the meaning of this beraisa, including how one can be expected to think of himself as wicked if our Sages teach that one is not allowed to regard himself as a wicked person.

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