This week’s Parshah opens with the details of vows and how to annul them. This seems to be a simple set of laws until we consider the context of this passage in the Torah and its placement here towards the end of the book of Bamidbar.
The book of Bamidbar relates the journey from Har Sinai to the plains of Moav that is the last camp before the Jewish people enter the land of Israel. During this journey the Jewish people prepare themselves to enter the land of Israel and to function therein as a comprehensive nation.
Therefore the book of Bemidbar is essentially about how this fledging nation develops from a young and inexperienced group that have just received their Divine constitution, to a nation with all the trappings of nationhood, a priestly caste, leaders, an aim and demand for a land.
In last week’s parshah they reached their final destination, Arvot Moav. Here they are commanded as to how to divide up the land, Yehoshua is chosen as the new leader who will lead them into the land of Israel, and they are commanded regarding the sacrifices that they will offer on each of the special festivals.
The commandment that follows, i.e. the laws of vows, seems to be somewhat out of place. Here the Torah was discussing great ideas of national importance when suddenly we are told how to make and break vows. This goes from the most national and collective laws to some of the most private and individual. How come?
I believe that the message is clear and essential. Often we are mistaken into thinking that for nations to be successful they need to have strong leadership and great national institutions. However the conduct of the individuals is less important and has little impact on the state of the nation. However this is not true.
The nation cannot be formed only according to the great national deeds of the people and the leaders. In order to create a holy nation and a kingdom of priests God’s law needs to cover both the ideas of the nation but hand in hand with this also the exemplary conduct of each and every individual. The way we promise each other and hold responsibility for our declarations is no less important than how we divide up the land or the responsibility of the leader.
Therefore in the midst of discussion of the affairs of the nation the Torah suddenly turns back to the individual and demands from him and her to be true to their word and to take responsibility not only for their actions but also for the words that they utter.
Each individual person needs to contribute to the nation’s wellbeing. There are those for whom this means taking a leadership role, but for the others this means taking responsibility for themselves and realizing that this too is essential when we come to create a holy nation.