How could a 3,000-year-old document be as relevant today as when it was written?
Table for Five: Re’eh
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Everything I command, you shall be careful to do it. You shall neither add to it, nor subtract from it. -Deut. 13:1
Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org
Mies van der Rohe, the German-American pioneer of modernist architecture, coined the phrase, “less is more.” It meant that sometimes, when it comes to design, reducing components can actually be more aesthetically pleasing than adding them. It resulted in a kind of minimalistic architecture.
Others have disagreed and done just the opposite, adding more than might be necessary. In the end, it’s really a matter of personal taste. However, not everything works this way. When it comes to science and technology, too many or too few components can result in failure, or worse. Nature itself seems finely balanced, and when that balance is upset, it can have all kinds of negative repercussions we might never have imagined. This is certainly the case with Torah.
There are 613 mitzvos (commandments), and if you add those digits together, the result is 10, which in Kabbalah represents perfection. If you add the one and zero together, the result is one, the symbol of perfect unity and balance. The mitzvos are more than just acts of obedience and ways to earn divine favor. They are the means by which we keep the world in balance, ourselves included.
Each mitzvah has a mystical basis, and has been divinely designed to impact the world in very specific, positive ways—even we can’t see or understand how. If we minimalize or add to mitzvos beyond divine specification, we throw the world out of spiritual kilter, resulting in damaging effects. Hence the Torah’s warning.
Yehudit Garmaise, Teacher, Parsha, Chassidus, and Simcha
Although Moshe foresaw and discouraged the human impulse to “edit” instructions, he is not saying that Jews cannot innovate. In fact, “writing your own Torah” is the last mitzvah in the Torah. When Moshe shattered the first set of tablets, the stones broke, but the letters flew up into the air. “Now,” Moshe said, “Grab the letters and make them into your own Torah.”
“Writing your own Torah,” means that we are commanded to gather our questions and learn the Torah to answer them in ways that resonate and inspire us as individuals.
But as we do this creative thinking we must, Moshe warns, stay true to the Torah itself. Only then, Moshe tells us, is the Torah the source of all our blessings.
Why, for instance, do the ideas of one of the greatest innovators of Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov, flourish? The answer is that the Baal Shem Tov, like every other enduring Torah innovator, stayed true to the purity and the holiness of the Torah that we were given at Mt. Sinai.
Perhaps from Korach on, we see throughout history, many Jewish movements that simply die out after seeking to update or edit the Torah, G-d forbid, to their liking, convenience, or preference. Why?
Our strength, our holiness, and our purity as a people comes directly from the Torah.
Our parsha starts out with the word, “See,” because we must continue to refine our vision in order to see that the Torah is truth: complete, perfect, and an infinite blessing.
Rabbi Scott N. Bolton, Congregation Or Zarua, NYC
To do or not to do? That is the better Jewish question! In our age of identity politics and living in our minds, I offer that we could use more doing and less thinking about being Jewish.
Ask a mourner without a minyan. Ask a hungry person. Consider someone sick who needs a bowl of chicken soup. Where’s the pot!? Let’s not miss out on the power of answering “amen” to someone’s kaddish.
In our verse, the Torah demands that we “do the mitzvot” and not just reduce them to Jewish ideas. That’s my reading of “do not subtract from them.” Nor are we allowed to inflate any one of them to a level of importance that we ignore other mitzvot. That is “adding to them” – thinking one mitzvah or another makes someone a better Jew. Moses explained that life for the Jewish People is engaging all the mitzvot, to create as holistic an approach as we can given our time, and those mitzvot that still apply. “Everything I command you – be careful to do it.” We can do more!
Learn Torah, take off work for yom tov, fast and advocate for Israel, as well as march against racism, visit the sick and do our parts at local soup kitchens. Mystically, our world is the Olam HaAsiyah – the world of doing. Through the performance of mitzvot we reveal divine light and bring more redemption to the world. Oh, how poetic a life! What tastes of redemption await us.
Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Executive Director, Aish LA
If Gordon Ramsay, the world’s top Chef, gave you his secret recipe for the most important dinner party of your life, would you leave out or add one ingredient or measure?
Would you add a stroke to a Van Gogh?
So it is with the Torah’s 304,805 letters dictated to Moses. If one is left out or added, the Torah is null and void until repair. Think of the Torah as code from a Master Programmer. It’s running the most sophisticated hardware… life itself. Applicable to every permutation of human activity imaginable. As Rabbi Ben Bag Bag (Ethics of the Fathers) says: “Delve in it… for everything is in it…”
When a Jew studies Torah, it’s as if the cake is reading its own recipe.
The Torah was given only once in history. Never to be repeated. There is nothing irrelevant from days of antiquity nor is anything missing, including Zoom and Augmented Reality.
So what are all these Rabbinical add-ons anyway? All the prophets that followed only illuminated what was enumerated in the Torah. After prophecy ended 2500 years ago, there were a few rare individuals who added “insulation” to the Torah. They dedicated themselves to total immersion in Torah study and were at the highest echelon of wisdom. They knew how to apply the 13 Hermeneutic Principles of logic that are displayed throughout the Talmud.
For the rest of us it’s akin to a defibrillator, which should only be used by trained professionals.
Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, Assistant Rabbi, Temple Beth Am
When cooking a new dish for the first time, I carefully follow a recipe. But it’s likely that next time I’ll tweak it – the amount of salt, garlic, eggs, time in the oven, etc. The recipe gives me a foundation to which I include, over time, my unique and chosen improvements. The authenticity of the recipe is acknowledged, alongside the modifications of this cook and eater. In Parashat Re’eh, often the word tishmoru is translated as “enjoined upon.” But what if we understood it as “we will keep” or “protect.” We protect and keep rituals, customs and halachot, but like a recipe, we benefit from continuing to test the ingredients, the amounts, the detailed instructions against our evolving world and human nature.
We are commanded to neither add nor take away from that which was given to us. However, is Halakha not an addition and sometimes subtraction to the mitzvot and laws given to us in Torah in order to apply them to current life? Halacha adds a layer of life-understanding of the unchanging words of Torah. We sync ourselves with the Wholeness of Torah, wrestling with the provocative and seemingly inevitable questions. As a rabbi in the Conservative movement, we thrive on making sure that the halakhot we are practicing and observing are conducive and relevant to the life we are living. I preserve and protect Torah and laws of God, and by practicing Halakha that sustains me in 2020. This is not addition, nor subtraction, this is understanding and living.
With thanks to Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Yehudit Garmaise, Rabbi Scott N. Bolton, Rabbi Aryeh Markman, and Rabbi Rebecca Schatz
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