The Torah section of Matot encompasses three sub-sections: G-d’s precepts and regulations concerning vows (Bamidbar 30:2-17), G-d’s instructing the children of Israel to avenge themselves against the Midianites (Bamidbar 31:1-54) and the special agreement reached with the tribes of Reuven and Gad in light of their “abundant livestock” (Bamidbar 32:1-42).
In the course of discussing how the spoils of war with Midian should be treated, we read (Bamidbar 31:22-23): “Only the gold and the silver, the copper, the iron, the tin, and the lead. Everything that comes into the fire, you shall pass through the fire and it will be purified, but it must be purified with the water of sprinkling, and everything that would not come in the fire, you shall pass through the water.”
In his Darash Moshe, the great latter-day Torah giant R. Moshe Feinstein offers an intriguing insight on the aforementioned verse. As the source in Jewish law for removing impurities and forbidden matter from vessels, R. Feinstein suggests that we can extrapolate from this to how to deal with impurities and forbidden matters in general as they affect a person. We can learn from this, R. Feinstein posits, that one soiled with iniquity and wrongdoing can similarly correct the problem by purging his sins – no matter how deep rooted they may be – and cleansing himself by way of repentance, that such is definitely within one’s power and one should never lose hope from correcting such a situation. Nevertheless, we also can derive that all problems cannot be purged equally. Like impurities that were transmitted to a vessel by way of fire must be removed by means of fire while impurities that were not transmitted in this manner suffice with being cleansed by just water, so do sins that have seared one’s being by way of the flames of heated or intense desire require comparable treatment, namely intense repentance while weaker sins can be treated with less intensity.
When one suffers harm to one’s physical self, one does not treat all problems equally or with the same urgency. One does not react to or treat findings of a major disease, G-d forbid, with the same fervor – or lack of it – as one deals with a paper cut. Certainly not. If one would do so, we would consider him a candidate for an insane asylum. Yet, when it comes to non-physical issues, whereby one suffers harm to his moral or spiritual being by way of sinful thoughts or actions, we often treat these in a similar and homogeneous manner.
Even at the most auspicious time of the year for repentance, after the Jewish month of Elul begins, when Jews the world over turn their thoughts to repentance, up until and including the holy day of repentance Yom Kippur, many of us tend to treat our sins – all of our sins – in a similar fashion. We tend to throw everything that we have done wrong – assuming that we even admit really to doing anything wrong – into one basket and either lackadaisically mumble off the various penitent prayers found in the siddur (prayer book) or launch into a show of religious fervor whereby we cry intensely over every single offense we have committed without actually putting much thought to the nature of the different sins we are responsible for and their proportionate damage.
Beseeching G-d, whether in the form of repentance or in the form of prayer, is not a matter to be taken lightly or routinely. We must show that we are worthy of what we are asking for by demonstrating an appropriate understanding of what we are saying and its ramifications as well as the appropriate feelings and emotions. Only then can we expect G-d to give our requests the desired attention. If we do not do so, then we are fooling no one but ourselves. We certainly cannot fool G-d.