We live our lives with the best intentions. We do what we believe is right, and when we don't live up to our intentions, we try again. As human beings we strive to make a better world, individually and collectively, but as human beings, we inevitably fall short.
How often do we promise ourselves that we will eat better, exercise more, be kinder, take action to right the wrongs of the world — and how many times do we fail?
The double portion of Mattot-Mase'ei — the last portion of the book of Numbers — addresses this human predicament. It deals with taking vows, warriors returning from battle and cities of refuge. The common theme is the grandeur and fragility of human intention.
Mattot's opening emphasizes the importance of keeping vows. "He shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips."
When a man makes a vow he is expected to keep it.
Yet Rabbi Stacy K. Offner's insights in The Woman's Torah Commentary teach us how hard it can be to keep a vow.
The portion explains the limits on women's vows. They can be annulled by their father if a young, unmarried woman is living in his household, or annulled by her husband. When this happens, the woman is released from the vow completely.
While there is a different standard for men and women here, Offner suggests that we all could benefit from a trusted advisor to hear our vow, suggest we not take it if it is too ambitious, and even annul it if we cannot fulfill it.
While we may make a promise with good intentions, the reality is that we do not always follow through. The Torah's differing stance on men and women can help us see both sides of vow-making: We must take them seriously, but as mere mortals, we may not always be able to keep them.
A similar theme arises from the ritual for warriors returning from battle. The men begin the battle against the Midianites at the command of God through Moses. Yet even with a divine purpose to their fighting, every person who has slain another person or touched a corpse undergoes a ritual cleansing before they can re- enter the camp.They must stay outside it for seven days.
This is the typical protocol for corpse defilement, but it goes further than that by including warriors who killed — as Rashi suggests — even remotely with weapons like a bow and arrow.
This suggests that even when the killing is divinely ordained, with the best intentions to follow God's will, it still requires cleansing. Somehow, it does not live up to our best potential as humans.
The cities of refuge described in Ma'asei provide a similar example. They are cities established for people who commit manslaughter, unintentionally killing another person. Such a person is safe from a blood-avenger in these cities, as long as the death was accidental.
The people who committed the accidental killing are not guilty of murder, yet they incur repercussions from their actions by being limited to the city of refuge. Their intention was not to kill, but their intention here fails. The cities of refuge respond compassionately to this situation.
Mattot-Mase'ei reminds us of the ability of human beings to strive to do their best, and the inevitable shortcomings that they will encounter in the process. We can use this wisdom to inspire our actions and remember to be gentle on ourselves when we don't always live up to our intentions.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. E-mail her at: [email protected]