The section of the Torah (Numbers 20:2-16) that speaks about the laws of vows has a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning appears to be a general introduction about the obligation to keep one’s word:

If a man makes a vow to the L‑rd or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he shall not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he shall do.

The middle section includes a set of rules about the right of a husband or a father to object—under particular circumstances—to vows made by his wife or daughter. A couple of examples: the father can only nullify his daughter’s vow on the day he hears of it, and he can only object to his wife’s vow if it affects him.

The section concludes with a summary:

These are the statutes which the L‑rd commanded Moses concerning a man and his wife, a father and his daughter, in her youth, while in her father’s house.

Given that the purpose of this final verse is to serve as a summary of what came before, why is it focused exclusively on the middle part while ignoring the beginning?

Surely the obligation to fulfill one’s vows is more important than the ability to abolish them. And as such, the summary verse appears to omit the most salient point!

In characteristic fashion, the Rebbe shows us that we need to shift our perspective.

We assume that the opening verse – “he shall not violate his word” – is a commandment to honor our word, and thus we wonder how this important law is left out of the summary. But what if the opening verse is not a command at all?

This is indeed the case, the Rebbe explains. This section of the Torah is entirely about nullifying vows – which explains why the summary is exclusively focused on this aspect. As for the first verse? That is merely an introduction that is stating the obvious. In other words: “As we all know, a person’s word should be their bond, which normally means a sacred commitment to fulfilling one’s vows. However, there are specific occasions when vows may be cancelled…”

Our Torah portion is not introducing the obligation to do as one promised, as this is already well established. Rather, it is focused on the more surprising fact that it is possible to annul the vow.

By now we have gone through almost four-fifths of the Five Books of Moses, in which the assumption has been that a person must act with integrity. The making and keeping of promises are a theme running through so many of the Biblical stories. When Jacob is cheated by his father-in-law, Laban, he scolds him, “And why did you cheat me?”1 Sticking with Jacob, we read how he made and kept a vow to be faithful to G‑d.2

Many of the previous sections of the Torah contain laws that are based on the core value of honoring one’s word – from promises to donate the value of a person or animal for sacred purposes3 to the laws pertaining to a Nazarite vow.4

Moreover, the Ten Commandments declare “You shall not issue false testimony,”5 and we are urged to “distance yourself from anything false.”6

By the time we arrive at the end of the book of Numbers, we have been reminded countless times about the need to keep our word.

Thus, the opening verse here does not introduce a new obligation, it introduces the laws of annulling vows. The summary at the end therefore focuses on the ways in which a vow may be overturned.

With this in mind, another difficulty is cleared up. At the very beginning, we are told that these laws were delivered to “the heads of the tribes.” Rashi explains that this is mentioned to tell us that just as a father can annul a vow, so may a leading expert disqualify a vow.

Since the Torah specifies that this section was presented to the leaders, it is reasonable to assume that the leaders have some sort of unique relationship with the issue. But why would Rashi think that this relates to the leaders’ role in undermining the vow, rather than the more obvious idea that they have a special role in ensuring people adhere to their vows?

But knowing that this section is entirely about annulling vows, it is easy to understand that the mention of the leaders as the recipients of the laws will also relate to their role in getting rid of vows.

There is a powerful lesson in all of this. In the eyes of the Torah, integrity and honesty are not commands; rather, they should be seen as a way of life. The sacredness of one’s word should be woven into the fabric of one’s being, just as it is woven into so many of the stories and the laws of the Torah. It is so patent, it need not even be said. After all, what kind of world would we live in if we could give no credence to the value of a person’s promise?

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 13, Parshat Matot I.