How Not to Be Indispensable*

by Eliezer Segal

Numbers 30

1 And Moses spake unto the heads of the tribes concerning the children of Israel, saying, This is the thing which the Lord hath commanded.2If a man vow a vow unto the LORD, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth. ..16 These are the statutes, which the LORD commanded Moses, between a man and his wife, between the father and his daughter, being yet in her youth in her father' house.

Let's all jump into the wayback machine and whisk ourselves back to the twelfth-century. Rabbi Solomon ben Meir-- the Rashbam-- was visiting the city of Loudon in the Anjou region of France, where he was challenged to explain an apparent anomaly in the Bible. The section at the beginning Numbers 30 is a rarity in the Torah, in that it does not introduce its message with an invocation of the divine source for the precepts contained therein, which consist of various aspects of the laws of vows. Here, however, the wording is decidedly different, and Rashbam's interlocutors challenged him to account for the phenomenon:

Where have we ever seen a section of the Torah that begins in this manner? It does not say anywhere above that The Lord spoke to Moses saying, If a man make a vow...'. Why then does this section begin with Moses' speech, which is not explicitly described as originating from God?

Rabbi Samuel was a well-known advocate of the p'shat approach to exegesis--of explaining Scripture on its own terms without recourse to the traditional interpretations of the Talmud and Midrash. Would he be able to use his literalistic approach to resolve the difficulty?

Rashbam's answer, though expressed in a somewhat roundabout manner, is that the timing of this section was initiated by Moses himself--though the content, of course, was of divine origin, like the rest of the teachings of the Torah, and as is stated explicitly at the conclusion of the section, These are the statutes, which the Lord commanded Moses (30:16).

According to Rabbi Samuel's reconstruction, Moses felt himself impelled to deal with the topic of vows after having set out the sequence of festival sacrifices in the previous chapter. At the conclusion of that discourse, he had stated These things ye shall do unto the Lord in your set feasts, beside your vows, and your freewill offerings, etc. (29:39). This casual mention of vows and freewill obligation set Moses to thinking that there was an important aspect of these laws that had not been stressed sufficiently: that Once a person has accepted the obligation in the form of a vow or freewill offering, then there were time-limits that went into effect. It was particularly advisable to bring the promised offerings on one of the three pilgrimage festivals. If the person delays the fulfillment of the obligation beyond that time, then they will become guilty of a transgression. With this in mind, Moses decided that he immediately had to instruct the Israelites about this important principle. He turned to the tribal chiefs, and recited to them the passage about vows that included the verse If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth (30:2).

Certainly, there is a lot to be said in favour of Rashbam's explanation. Nevertheless, I do not find it entirely satisfying. For one thing, the matter of time limits occupies only a verse or two in a sixteen-verse section.

More important, to my mind, is the fact that it does not provide an adequate explanation for another of the section's glaring anomalies, the fact that it is the only set of laws in the Torah that is addressed to the heads of the tribes.1 Why could this section not have been directed, like the rest of the Torah, to the Israelites as a whole?

Don Isaac Abravanel took a similar approach in explaining the peculiar features of the passage. He accepted some of the same basic premises:

  1. The decision to deal with the topic of vows at this time was Moses' initiative.

  2. The timing, and the passage's place in the sequence of the Torah narrative, are significant.

Nevertheless, Abravanel understands our passage in light of one overwhelming reality that defines the rest of the Torah: Moses' awareness of his impending death.

In Numbers 25:16-18, Moses was commanded to go to war against the Midianites for their treachery. In 27:12-23, he was informed that that he would die soon, which prompted him to make arrangements for appointing Joshua as his successor. In 31:2 the connection between these developments is spelled out explicitly: Moses is informed after waging the war against Midian, he will die.

Although the laws of vows were given previously (for example, in Leviticus 22), they took on a very different perspective in light of Moses' awareness of his approaching death.

Talmudic tradition states that what Moses was teaching to the heads of the tribes--that is to say, the chief judges of his generation--was the institution of absolution from vows. This procedure can be performed by a qualified sage. It is a very complicated process, requiring that the sage conduct an interview the person who made the vow. On the basis of this interview, he must determine whether that individual was fully aware of its consequences at the time that the vow was taken.

As understood by Abravanel, up until this moment, Moses had handled all such cases by himself. We may recall that Moses was notoriously poor at delegating his administrative and judicial functions. Fortunately, he had a wise father-in-law who saved him from burn-out by teaching him how to organize a hierarchical judicial structure. Nevertheless, when it came to absolution of vows, Moses recognized that he was the supreme expert on the topic; and therefore he just assumed that he should handle all the cases personally.

As the immanence of his death became clearer to him, he came to the realization that, by taking on all the responsibilities for so many years, he had left a gaping vacuum in the leadership of his people. After he was removed from the scene, there might be no one left who would know how to perform those functions properly.

No doubt, Moses was the best and wisest person to adjudicate vows. And yet, by not distributing the responsibility, he had endangered the long-term viability of the community, and of the Torah itself.

Now Moses was suddenly awakened to the urgency of the matter. Perhaps it was, as Rashbam suggested, when he happened to mention the vows and freewill offerings in Numbers 29:39, that the light bulb suddenly lit up over his head, and he declared to himself: Hey! After I die, there won't be anyone around who will be qualified to absolve people of their vows.

For this reason, he reminded himself that, according to the Hebrew oral tradition, the absolution of vows can be performed by any qualified sage. So he now addressed the heads of the tribes in order to instruct them on that point.

In our congregations and communities, we are all familiar with such situations. We know of had rabbis and leaders who are such perfectionists that they insist on doing everything by themselves, rather than have the tasks done in a less than perfect way. When they not around--whether they have gone on vacation, a sabbatical, a permanent relocation to another city, or when they have actually died--we find ourselves left without anybody who with the training and experience to take on those jobs.

Moses. at least, had enough foresight to scramble to train the new leadership in the last remaining days of his life. We have often avoided doing any preparation at all.

It is of course a two-way street. Those of us who have the experience and skills should make the effort to training substitutes and successors--even if this occasionally means having to wince at the imperfections of the amateurs as they struggle up the learning curve.

By the same token, the rest of us should start thinking seriously about broadening our potentials--learn to chant from the Torah, lead the congregational prayers, or set up refreshments for the Kiddush. Yes, at this point, you might not be able to do it as well as the person who is doing the job now--but if everybody thought that way, then our people would be in grave trouble.

It is a nice feeling to feel indispensable or irreplaceable. Though such feelings might be very salutary for our self-esteem, in the long run, it is not healthy for the societies or religious communities when crucial roles are restricted to small numbers of individuals.

Evidently, Moses originally thought that by appointing a new leader he would solve the problems of transition to the next generation. Perhaps what we are witnessing here is the great prophet's realization that it is not enough to make changes at the top; what is required is a constant renewal of resources at all levels. Only in this way can we insure continued vitality.

It is a lesson that Moses did not learn until it was almost too late. We have the opportunity to act with due deliberation and planning.

And anyhow, how often are we given an opportunity to do something better than Moses?

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*Delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, July 30, 2005.