This shabbat, we read two parshiyot, Matot and Maseh. Parashat Matot opens with the laws dealing with vows one may make. The Torah describes various methods of releasing oneself from their obligation. The parasha begins:
"Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: "This is what Hashem commands: When a man makes a vow to Hashem or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said. (Numbers 30:1-2)
These laws were only said to the head of the tribes of Israel. Why were these laws only specified to leaders and not conveyed to the average person as other halachot were?
Rashi explains that the Torah is only giving honor to the heads of the tribes, but ultimately, the laws were passed over to Bnei Yisrael, even though it is not mentioned in the Torah. However, other Rabbis teach us that the plain text does mention that such a transmission took place. Therefore, it is more reasonable to maintain that these laws were only said to the leaders of the tribes, and not divulged to the masses.
According to these Rabbis, why were these laws only transmitted to the heads of the tribes?
We can add another question. Later in the parasha, we read of the great war Bnei Yisrael had with Midyan. A nation of hundreds of thousands fell to an army of only 12,000 soldiers, because Hashem fought along side them. In collecting the booty from the war front, Elazar HaKohen commanded the people to purify the untensils acquired. It is from these verses that we learn to dip our purchased dishes in a miqveh:
"Then Eleazar the priest said to the soldiers who had gone into battle, "This is the requirement of the law that the LORD gave Moses: Gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, lead 23 and anything else that can withstand fire must be put through the fire, and then it will be clean. But it must also be purified with the water of cleansing. And whatever cannot withstand fire must be put through that water." (Numbers 31:21-23)
One can understand that those utensils that were used needed to be dipped, but why were utensils that were new required to dipped in a miqveh?
The answer to both these questions is simple. The details of the laws of vows and oaths were only taught to the leaders, because the leaders are the ones who deal and make decisions in these cases. These laws are very complex and detailed. In addition, if the masses were aware of ways to "unobligate" themselves from vows, the nation would begin to be less careful about the manner of their speech, and realize the severity of making a vow.
We must dip even new dishes because we must "sanctify" the utensil, as it enters into the custody of a Jewish person. We must raise the holiness of the utensil. This dipping has absolutely nothing to do with a physical cleansing, but rather a spiritual rebirth.
Both these topics in our parasha deal with the holiness of our nation. According to the simple meaning of the text, only the leaders were told of the details of the laws of vows, in order to maintain a respect and fear in the people for watching the holiness of their speech; if they obligate themselves, they should believe that they must do as they promised. Similarly, we are commanded to dip new dishes in order to protect the holiness and separateness of our nation, even on such a small degree.
In this crucial time for our nation, we must be aware of our inherent holiness, cultivate it through Torah study, protect it as the Torah dictates, and be proud of being God's people.