Parshas Vaeschanan (5769)
One of the 613 mitzvos in the Torah is the commandment not to add on to, or subtract from, any of the other 612 commandments. As it states in this week's Torah portion: "You shall not add onto the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish from it, to guard the commands of G-d, which I command you. It is your own eyes which see what G-d did at Ba'al Peor. For every man that went after Ba'al Peor, G-d has destroyed from among you" (Deuteronomy 4:2-3).
Ba'al Peor was the name of an idol which some Jews had worshipped and were duly punished by G-d for their grave sin. The Torah seems to be equating the act of adding onto the Torah, or subtracting from it, with the cardinal sin of idolatry. How can we understand this equation?
Now maybe we can comprehend the gravity of the sin of subtracting some laws of the Torah, as that might be somewhat insulting to G-d to discount what He wants us to do. It's like we're telling G-d, "That bit about not stealing, G-d, yeah, I'll go for that one. But I'm really in the mood for some good shrimp, so that 'kosher business' is going to have to go!" You see, religion is not like a game show where you can pick and choose …. "I'll take the Sabbath for $300, G-d".
That reminds me of an old joke: Bill Clinton meets with the Pope, and, as you can imagine, their meeting is covered extensively by the media. The president leaves the meeting with a big grin on his face. When asked to comment on his jovial mood, Clinton says, "The Pope and I agreed on 90% of what we discussed!" Then the Pope comes out with a pained expression on his face. One journalist asks the Holy See, "Why are you so upset? President Clinton told us that you both agreed to 90% of what you discussed." To which the Pope replied, "Yes, I know, but the problem is that we were discussing the Ten Commandments!"
When it comes to religion, you just can't pick 9 out of 10 ….
But it is difficult to understand what's so terrible about adding on a little something to the religion - just to give it a nice touch. A little "home improvement" never hurt anybody! And didn't the Rabbis themselves “add on” to the Torah a bunch of new laws? I mean, it doesn't say anywhere in the Torah that you have to wash your hands before eating bread! So how can the Torah write that adding on to the mitzvos is comparable to idolatry?
The commentaries explain the idea of the above verses as follows: The immediate transition from the commandment not to add or subtract from the Torah to the warning about idol worship, proclaims the fact that every single denial of the inviolable Divinity of the Torah even regarding one single commandment - setting Man's opinion as being equal to G-d's absolute truth - is equivalent to a general defection to polytheism.
We believe that just as G-d created and set up the physical world to follow specific unchangeable laws of nature, so too did He create the parallel spiritual world which follows certain inviolable laws. These laws are the commandments of the Torah. We don't always comprehend the significance and importance of all the commandments. But they are what keep our souls going.
Sometimes we try to give human reasons for G-d's Divine commandments. Interestingly, the word for "reason" in Hebrew is ta’am, which is also the Hebrew word for "taste". (You must have seen Manischevitz Tam Tam Crackers on the shelf at your local supermarket. Tam Tam means they're very tasty ..... or so they claim!) This is not a coincidence. There is a connection between reason and taste.
The main reason why we eat food is for its nutritional value. Even if the apple wasn't red and shiny and the loaf of bread didn't have a wonderful aroma, we would still eat it for its nutritional value. The ta'am (taste), or aesthetic appeal, of the apple is a gift from G-d just to make the food easier to swallow.
So, too, say the commentaries, with the commandments of the Torah. They are "soul food" in the truest sense of the word. Each mitzvah/commandment is designed to give life and strength to a different part of our soul. But just to make it easier for us to “digest” the commandments, we suggest a ta'am, or reason, for each one of the commandments. We should always remember, though, that the essence of the commandment, and what gives it its nutritional value for our souls, is much deeper than we can ever imagine.
For this reason it is considered a sin tantamount to idolatry not just to subtract from the Torah, but even to add on to the Torah even one single commandment. The commandments are our spiritual diet as prescribed for us by “Doctor G-d”. Just as it would be considered insolent and extremely arrogant for one who knows nothing about medicine to suggest a different medicine than the one given him by a well-known doctor, so too, do we dare not alter the Divinely prescribed regimen for our spiritual health.
Any Rabbinic enactments and decrees that were instituted after the Torah was written, were not, G-d forbid, additions and improvements to the Torah. Rather, they were safeguards to ensure the continued fulfillment of the Torah throughout the generations. So, for example, whereas the Torah might Biblically allow a person to carry objects on the Sabbath in certain proscribed areas, the Rabbis felt that by doing so people might soon violate the Biblically mandated prohibitions against carrying, and they therefore banned all types of carrying, unless certain very specific conditions were met. This is merely a safeguard to G-d's Torah, reflecting a love and concern for the commandments and their continued upkeep, and in no way suggests an “improvement” on G-d’s original work.
So the powerful message of the commandment not to add to or subtract from the Torah really is that our Father in Heaven knows best when it comes to our souls and their spiritual/nutritional needs, and, as they say … if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!