In this week’s Torah portion, Va’Ethanan, we continue listening to the speech of Moshe Rabbeinu to the Jewish people at the conclusion of 40 years in the desert, as the nation stands ready to enter the Land of Israel.
This lengthy speech that is spread over much of the Book of Deuteronomy includes a historical survey that Moshe presents before the people. In this survey, he describes the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and draws a number of lessons for the nation to put into practice in advance of entering the Land of Israel and building an independent Jewish state for the first time in history.
In this speech, made up of so many elements, one can find many significant statements, but it seems that one of the most important is one we meet in our Torah portion: “And now, O Israel, hearken to the statutes and the ordinances which I teach you, to do them; that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, gives you.
“You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you detract from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” (Deuteronomy 4:1-2) In this statement, Moshe indicates an important point worthy of our consideration. After his introduction that speaks of the commandments (statutes and ordinances) that he taught the people of Israel, he instructs them not to add any commandments to the Torah, nor to remove any of them.
At first glance, the prohibition against detracting from the Torah’s commandments is understandable.
After God has commanded the observance of a commandment, man cannot remove it, and thus cancel it, in practical terms. But the first part of the statement is harder to understand. Why are we not permitted to add commandments to the Torah? How could new commandments harm the others that we observe? The answer can be found in Moshe’s following statement, in which he points out the uniqueness of the Jewish nation: “Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, even as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do so in the midst of the land where you are going in to possess it.
“Observe them and do them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, that when they hear all these statutes, shall say: ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what great nation is there, that hath God is so near them, as the Lord our God is whenever we call upon Him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 1:5-8) These verses describe how impressed the other nations are with Israel’s Torah. These same nations that are not obligated to keep the Torah see the Torah as a divine creation, and not as composed by men.
If other nations who do not experience the keeping of the commandments are so sincerely impressed, we who are so fortunate as to keep the commandments, and to know the “taste” of Shabbat, the benefit of family life according to Judaism, the existential experience that observing the commandments between man and his fellow man provides – how much more so.
Let us imagine someone taking a Rembrandt painting and adding a few of his own lines or drops of paint. Or perhaps someone else adding a few notes to one of Mozart’s wonderful concertos – is he “just” adding, or is he, in effect, destroying a work of art? When we internalize and experience the special righteousness of the Torah’s laws, and the spiritual heights to which the commandments can propel us, it is easy to understand how adding any commandment is similar to destroying a masterpiece by making an “innocent” addition of lines or drops of paint.
Behind this insight is the knowledge that the Torah is not a human creation, but a divine one which is precisely calibrated to the spiritual needs of man, and therefore, any human interference that attempts to cancel a commandment or to add Torah commandments will never reach the level of God’s precision, and will only cause damage.
At best, human interference in a divine work indicates a lack of understanding of the gap between man and his Creator. In the worst case, it shows impudence.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.