Table for Five: Va’etchanan
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Do not add to the word which I command you, nor diminish from it, to observe the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.
– Deut. 4:2
Rabbi Ariel Margulies & Chana Margulies, Author of “Jumping in Puddles: A Transformational Memoir”
Why would one want to add to a mitzvah? Seemingly this is a positive trait, giving more than required. Yet we are asked to remain humble and remember that mitzvahs involve interacting with an energy that is beyond this world. It’s spiritual technology. We cannot add as we do not know what we are playing with in the spiritual infrastructure.
Yet it’s a positive desire. And so, G-d does allow you to “add” to the mitzvah. How? By commanding you not to.
By not acting on your desire to “add” as per divine command, you are creating an inverted reality beyond expression.
Rashi brings three examples on the above verse. Each displaying an example of mitzvahs containing four objects where a fifth may not be added. Thus we do not add a fifth section to Tefillin, nor add to the four species on Sukkot. Four represents the bounds of time and space. We gain VIP backstage access to “the fifth dimension,” the Yechida, the inner dimension of the soul, and reality, by not adding. It is through Hishakfia, self-control, that we gain access to an infinite energy. This we call in Kabbalah, Ohr Ein Sof, Light of the Infinite.
This principle holds true with every negative commandment. How do you elevate non-kosher food? By not eating it. To access the inner depths of Torah we must leave it in its pure authenticity, untouched by human modification. And we see this in relationships as well; it is often the things we don’t say or do that allow us to access another’s inner dimension.
Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, BCC/ New York-Presbyterian
In a truly relevant tradition, it’s natural that new things are added and others drop off.
In commanding the very opposite, God reveals the timelessness, holiness, and complexity of our Torah. That the Torah is complete, and everything we need is already in it– no more, no less– even when we may have a hard time seeing it.
There are times, of course, when our reality seems at odds with Torah, and that’s when this verse comes to remind us not to instinctually rewrite or diminish, but to dig deeper into our tradition and find God’s voice instructing us in our present moment.
This year, what stands out to me is the ethic of presence our verse challenges us to cultivate. There is wisdom in seeing and embracing something (or someone) in its fullness, as it is. Not trying to change, begrudging the past, or fearing the future. Just loving all of it in the present form (text, person, or experience).
This doesn’t preclude positive change, but inculcates the ability to hold both perfection and obscurity, blessing and curse, even healing and hurt. The Baal Shem Tov taught that every person has Torah to teach– wisdom, perspective, or insight only he or she can bring to this world. Or as Anton T. Boisen put it, we are all “living human documents” from which to learn. By commanding this verse first with God’s Torah, God teaches us the gravity and holiness that go into doing the same with each other.
Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew
At first glance, this verse is difficult to understand. Whereas it is seemingly obvious that we should not diminish, or do less than, that commanded by the Master of Universe Himself, what is wrong with doing more? Are not enthusiasm and initiative things to be admired? Are we not called upon to do more today than we did yesterday?
In truth, this verse is expressing a fundamental axiom about the measure of our dedication to God. To paraphrase the prophet Samuel, “listening to God is better than making sacrifices to Him.” The purest Divine service is simply to heed, and be in awe of, the word of God. Our performance of God’s commandments needs to remain God-centered and not be an act of self-important piety. Our enthusiasm and inspiration should appropriately fuel a boundless curiosity about the Torah and its mitzvot.
Our initiative is required for enacting God’s commandments even when it is difficult, and for working to include those who would otherwise be excluded. Every day, we must reach deeper into the Torah to find new profundity and new lessons for life. This frequent inward exploration will inevitably produce new perspectives and innovation, and it does not require adding to, or deviating from, the Torah.
We must remember that the well of the Torah is infinitely deep and nourishing. Each mitzvah is a balm to the soul and a restoration of justice and light in the universe. Let us treasure and delight in the mitzvot we are privileged to have.
Rabbi Michael Barclay, Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village
John Wooden once said, “You have to give 100% every day. If you give only 75% today, you can’t give 125% tomorrow to make up for it.” one of the greatest coaches in history, his injunction to players is only a recapitulation of God’s teaching in this verse.
God gave us the Torah, and teaches here that we are not to add or take away anything, but to guard it (the word “shomer” means “guard” as well as “observe”) fully. We are being asked to commit 100% to God’s words: to have total faith in the Divinity of the Torah. Not 99%, but full and complete faith.
Many of us start down a path with commitment, be it a spiritual, professional, or personal journey. But do we really give 100%, or do we stop giving our all partway through? Do we commit fully and entirely, or just partially commit? Excellence in any field comes from a complete commitment, but how often do we hold something back?
Maimonides begins each of his 13 Principles of Faith with the phrase, “I believe with perfect faith…” This verse tells us to have a full commitment and complete faith that every word of the Torah of God is perfect. It is a reminder to not just “do enough” in life, but to do all that we possibly can. As basketball players say, to “leave it all on the court.”
May we all choose to live fully and without hesitation, to commit entirely to our spiritual journey, and strive to give 100% of ourselves to God through service and faith.
David Brandes, Screenwriter
God wants total control of his own narrative. Makes sense to me as a screenwriter. After all, He’s the writer/creator. It’s His vision. But God knows the Jewish people. He knows that we are a restless bunch, so he warns us not to revise the text. When He wrote the first, and presumably only draft, God chose not to surround himself with story editors or executive producers. It’s His and His alone.
Screenwriters have been clamoring for this kind of independence for years, all with little success. Whereas God was somehow able to establish complete acceptance to the text of the torah… all without the help of the Writer’s Guild. If a sefer Torah is found to have a problem with even one letter the entire scroll is declared unusable unless and until the letter is corrected. Similarly, if the bal koreh, the Torah reader in synagogue, is found skipping or mispronouncing a word, the congregation must correct him and he must repeat the word correctly.
This might seem a bit obsessive but there is method to the madness. The Torah is not only a great story filled with extraordinary characters and compelling action. It is a text so complex, so filled with psychological insight, and wisdom, that it would take a writer who knows God to change it. And as Chaim says to Hersh in the movie The Quarrel written by myself and Joseph Telushkin: “If I knew God, I’d be God”.
Image: The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghorn, Italy by Solomon Alexander Hart, 1850
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our weekly newsletter.