Avot DeRabbi Natan states, “Speak little, but do much.” We learn that the righteous speak little but do much, the source being Avraham Avinu’s interaction with the angels when they came to his tent. The wicked, however, speak much and do not do even a little. We learn this from the interaction of Efron the Chitit and Avraham involving the sale of Maarat HaMachpeilah.
Avot DeRabbi Natan describes only people who speak much but do little, or people who speak little but do much. Conventional wisdom tells us that the one should strive to reach the level of saying little but doing much. Despite this, perhaps the proper way one should live his life is to speak much and also do much like the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menasheh in Parashat Mattot.
At the beginning of Parashat Mattot, we read the laws of vows and oaths, Nedarim and Shevuot. When a person takes a vow or swears to do (or not do) something, he must fulfill his pledge because the Torah states that a person should not desecrate his word. This law concentrates on the message that the words a person says are extremely important, and we regard them with utmost seriousness.
With this background in mind, let us now turn to the request made by the tribes of Reuven and Gad. They ask Moshe, Elazar the Kohen Gadol, and the Zekainim, “HaAretz Asher Hikah Hashem Lifnei Adat Yisrael Eretz Mikneh Hee ViLaAvadecha Mikneh,” “The land that God struck down before the people of Israel is a land for livestock, and your servants have many flocks,” “VaYomeru Im Matzanu Chein BiEinecha Yuttan Et HaAretz HaZot LaAvedacha LaAchuza Al Taavireinu Et HaYarden,” “They said, ‘If we are pleasing to you, let this land be given to your servants as a heritage; do not bring us across the Jordan River’” (BeMidbar 32:4). The words had barely left their mouths when Moshe erupted at them and replied, “HaAcheichem Yavou LaMilchamah VeAtem Teishvu Po,” “Will your brothers go off to war while you remain here!?” (32:6) Maybe Moshe feared another rebellion like Korach’s, or maybe he did not comprehend why anyone with the opportunity to cross the Jordan would turn it down. He, Moshe, did not have the chance to cross over, but they did have the chance, and therefore, why would they not take advantage of it? Moshe continues his tirade for nine verses. The two tribes then clarify their request and offer to fight for the rest of the nation until the land of Israel is conquered and settled. After Moshe has calmed down, he accepts their offer and says that they must stay with the nation until the land is conquered.
There is a subtle difference between the tribes’ offer and Moshe’s acceptance of their offer. They promised two things: to help Bnei Yisrael conquer the land and to stay with the people until the land is divided among the other tribes. Moshe, however, says that they only need to stay until after the conquest, not until after the portions are handed out. The two tribes are now faced with a dilemma. They had said that they were prepared to stay until after the Land was divided, but Moshe said they could go home after the conquest. On the one hand, no Israelite would look at them with contempt if they returned after the conquest because Moshe had permitted them. On the other hand, they had made a commitment to themselves and their brothers to stay through the land division. What should they do?
The two tribes choose the route of responsibility as we learn in the book of Yehoshua that they end up staying through the division of the Land. Why did they stay with the Israelites past the conquest when Moshe had allowed them to return? Even though no one would have looked at them negatively had they returned after the conquest, they regard their words very seriously. They do not stay on the west side of the Jordan to impress, but rather they stay to make a point to themselves and to others. When we accept a commitment upon ourselves, we must fulfill our obligations, even if others tell us that it does not have to be worried about.
Words are incredibly powerful. They have the ability to build, but they can also destroy. We must all train ourselves to think before we open our mouths to speak or to make a pledge. After we do speak, however, we must consider it as if we said, “I promise to do so-and-so,” even if in reality the words did not constitute a promise. We must be careful not to fall into the trap of Efron, who promised much, but barely delivered anything. May Hashem help us be among the students of Reuven, Gad, and Menashe, who promised much and kept their word.