D’var Torah on Matot (Sermon on Forgiveness)

Imagine sitting in traffic. You are on a narrow road with one lane going in each direction. A construction crew has blocked off a section of this road and allows only one direction of traffic to flow at a time. You have been waiting patiently for your turn to move forward, and suddenly a man in a sports car cuts you off. He comes out of nowhere, squeezes his way in front of your vehicle, and speeds off.

Many people’s initial reaction would be to think, “Man, what a jerk. He must think he’s some hot shot and that traffic laws don’t apply to him.” But imagine if you knew more about this man’s life, if you knew that he was rushing from a hectic project at work to the hospital where his son was suddenly in the intensive care unit, after being injured on the way back from a school field trip. Would you have the same response to the man’s behavior if you knew more about the circumstances that led to his actions?

We don’t always know why people do what they do. Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, reminds us to judge everyone l’chaf z’chut, meaning favorably. In other words, our tradition calls us to take the high road and assume the best of others. When we are confronted with someone who isn’t behaving the way we would like, it is on us to make a choice. We can choose to think about someone as a jerk based on one negative interaction with them. Or we can give them the benefit of the doubt and consider the possibility of mitigating circumstances.

In this week’s Torah portion, God models the high road for us and demonstrates this ideal level of consideration and forgiveness for others. But before I can explain this example, we need a bit of background knowledge on the Torah portion. This week’s Torah portion, Matot, discusses the importance of fulfilling vows that one has made to God. When a man makes a vow to God or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, the Torah says, “he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.”

Today a number of people use the phrase “I swear” rather loosely, as in “I swear I never touched it. Oh, you mean THAT sandwich? I might have mistaken it for MY lunch. Sorry!” But in biblical times and later in Talmudic times, vows were not taken lightly. If one needed to be released from a vow, one had to convene a Beit Din or court of three rabbis to get the vow annulled. One also had to prove that the vow was made in the absence of some important consideration that had one known at the time, he or she would not have dared to make such a vow.

Vows were serious business. Breaking one’s word was unthinkable. But in this week’s Torah portion, God forgives certain people for not fulfilling their vows. Who are these people? In this case, it was married women or young women who still lived in their father’s home. In biblical times (which, remember, was the Iron Age), women were subject to the will of their fathers or husbands. Thus, if women vowed to do something that their fathers or husbands did not want them to do, their husbands and fathers could simply annul the women’s vows. God could have held this against the women. Perhaps these women should have run the ideas by their spouses or parents before solemnly vowing to do them. Perhaps. But even if they should have been more careful with their oaths, God forgives the women for something that is beyond their control. In other words, God forgives people for doing things they should not have done, especially when the transgressions were due to mitigating circumstances.

We may never know why certain people do what they do. But we do know that as beings created in God’s image, we have the divine capacity to forgive others’ transgressions. May we all be inspired by this week’s Torah portion to judge all people favorably and be more open to forgiving their mistakes.

Shabbat shalom.