COME UP SHORT
Rabbi David Walk
This week's Torah reading is a real 'blockbuster'! Now, truthfully, I'm a bit embarrassed using that term to describe such a spiritually sublime piece of literature, because of its militarist roots. Also, it's corporate namesake went belly up. The word was first used to describe huge bombs dropped on London which, sadly, busted up entire city blocks. But it seems apt this week, because our parsha has such important and ground breaking (in a positive, agricultural way) material. Of course, we have the reprise of the Ten Commandments, and we have the first paragraph of Shema, with its revolutionary way of describing a religious life; love God, study Torah and teach offspring. We are also instructed here to have a long term perspective on Jewish history. In the future bad things will happen, but remembering the past glories will help us to survive. And a momentous moral instruction is also taught at the very outset of our reading. Moshe's experience of begging (that's v'etchanan) God to allow him into the Promised Land is rejected, teaching us that we have no entitlement for expecting God to answer our prayers favorably. We pray because it establishes our connection to God, not because we have a right to expect our wishes to come true. Moshe understood, and so should we. Worthy and impactful as all these topics are, I'd prefer to discuss a more modest issue this week.
Towards the beginning of the parsha, it states, 'You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, so that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I am commanding you (Deuteronomy 2:4).' A simple reading of this short text is quite simple: Don't put words into God's mouth or ignore anything that God has said. It's all too easy to abridge instructions that we've received, with disastrous results. Remember, Custer didn't follow orders at the Little Big Horn, and we know how well that turned out. And generally this is how the non-rabbinic world understands our verse: Don't abridge the Torah text.
On the other hand, most of our traditional sources explain this verse as dealing with mitzvot, not the content of the Torah itself. I think that the Sages assumed that the status of the Torah text was considered too sacrosanct to even discuss its authenticity. However, protecting mitzva performance was always a challenge. Therefore, many commentaries explain this text to mean that no individual has the right to add or deduct mitzvot from the Torah catalog of mitzvot. This doesn't prevent the great court (Sanhedrin) in Jerusalem from adding mitzvot, which they did seven times, but we are expected to recognize the difference between Torah and rabbinic ordinances.
What's fascinating to me, is that this precept appears twice. Once here and it gets repeated in what we call the first verse of chapter 13, 'Every word that I command you, you shall be careful to observe, neither adding to it nor subtracting from it.' Now, it could mean, that one of them is discussing the inviolability of the Torah text, and the other is about maintaining the Torah's parameters for mitzvot. The Vilna Gaon explains that the first citation prohibits adding or subtracting mitzvot, while the second forbids adding or subtracting within a specific mitzva. For example, a we can't shake five or three forms of vegetation on Sukkot. It must be the prescribed four types of produce in our Lulav. I think that the two mentions of this idea bracket some of the most important personal mitzvot in the Torah. Remember, between the two versions of this idea are the first and second paragraphs of Shema and the Ten Commandments. That's an impressive listing of commitment to Torah values.
But now we have a fascinating dilemma. Why can't we add to mitzvot? Let's say that I love maple trees (BTW, I do!). Why can't I hold some beautiful, large and red maple leaves with my Lulav? Wouldn't that enhance my Sukkot experience? Well, maybe, but then again, maybe not. Even though, I believe strongly, Judaism allows for personal expression, like individual additions to my Shmoneh Esreh, declaring a personal fast day or making a joyous feast of thanksgiving (seudat hoda'ah). The Torah also demands that there are shared, communal experiences, especially Shabbat and the holidays. We can learn a tremendous amount from the symbolism in our mitzvot which could be affected by changing the amounts, and we can also gain from the sense of belonging we gain from joining with the nation in our actions.
Then there's another interesting approach. Really, the Torah put the two prohibitions of adding to and subtracting from mitzvot together to teach us that just like we haven't performed the mitzva if we are lacking components, so, too, we can't fulfill our obligations if there are extra components. Adding is sometimes subtracting. This idea can be learned from a detail which bothered me. Back in the book of numbers we have two famous examples of individuals who complain that they can't fulfill a mitzva. Both the individuals who couldn't bring the Paschal lamb (Numbers 9:6-11) because of impurity and the daughters of Zelophchad (27:1-5) said they were garu'a (literally 'deficient'), but Onkelos translates that term as timna (prevented). In other words, when you are doing less you are prevented from the fulfillment in Torah we all want and require. So, too, here Onkelos (but not the Targum Yerushalmi, which switches here to batzer, 'lacking') uses the word timna, because if you have fewer items than the Torah demands you are prevented from fulfilling the mitzva. That's equally true if you have more.
Numbers in the Torah aren't options or suggestions. When the Torah says 'four', it means 'four' and not 'three' or 'fine' (That sounds like a line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.). As you see we can explain that concept in many ways, but the bottom line is: The Torah had a reason for specifying that number. It's our role to follow that instruction. But it would also be cool to find meaning in that detail.