Parshas Vaueschanan continues Moses’ rebuke of the Jews. But not all of Moses’ rebukes are so clear to grasp by the verses’ simple reading. As always, one must “learn” the verses: not simply read them.
In verse 3:29 Moses recalls how the Jews encamped opposite the idolatrous Baal Peor. But we are left hanging as to the significance of this recollection. The next verse introduces a seemingly new idea regarding the prohibition of adding to and detracting from the Torah. For example, as Baalei Tosfos cite, one must not wear 5 tzitzis, create 5 species in the lulav, or add a fifth section in tefillin. Similarly, one must not add a third cherub on the ark, or a third box of tefillin. Conversely, one is also prohibited to detract from the Torah. Moses cites these prohibitions here in 4:2.
What catches our attention is the very next verse 4:3 where Moses reminds the Jews how God killed all those who worshipped Baal Peor. Why does Moses return back to Baal Peor? He should have completed discussing all issues pertaining to Baal Peor, end that topic, and only then commence a new topic as he did by introducing the prohibitions of adding to and detracting from Torah. The sequence is interrupted…or is it?
Stop. Think for a moment. What justification might Moses have for associating idolatry and altering the number of mitzvahs? Stop. Think.
OK. Next step. Where do we start looking for an answer? Well, since this is a rebuke, we must examine human nature, for this is precisely the rebuked villain. But not just any area of human nature: but our emotions. What’s the next step? You got it: stop and think!
If we are seeking to explain the shared rebuke of idolatry and altering mitzvahs, we must first define their common denominator. What is common to both? Let’s take the easier one first. What is the primary human error in idol worship?
Idol worship is man’s attempt to be religious, but doing so with invented practices. This means that man is seeking a religious experience, but he does so by fantasizing baseless new methods or practices. What must be our next question? What motivates man to invent new religious expressions, instead of following what God prescribed in the Torah? There is only one answer: emotions. It cannot be intellect, for this capacity tells man NOT to project powers onto stone and wood idols. And man has only two capacities: his intellect and his emotions – the Yetzer haTov, and the Yetzer haRa. (Literally, the inclinations towards good and evil.) Our answer is staring us in the face…
One who adds or subtracts from the Torah is akin to an idolater since he too seeks religious expressions – performing mitzvos – but has an emotional need to make the religious expression conform to his likes and dislikes. Both individuals have emotions that fight the Torahs commands. But instead of changing themselves, they change the Torah. The crime in both cases is man’s estimation that HIS mode of fabricated expression is justified, since he feels a certain way. But God tells us that this exact thinking is punishable: “I will have peace [and not receive God’s curses] for I go in the path of my heart…”, “…then God’s anger will smoke against that man…”. (Deut. 29:18,19) God addresses this very phenomenon of one trusting his own feelings as being the sole arbiter of reality. One thinks that since his heart felt “right” about something, then it “must” be right. Of course, this is a very distorted person, for such a person would never decide to inject a fluid in his or her veins, regardless of how right he or she felt. They would seek a specialist. This exposes man’s foolish dichotomy. He values his temporal body, over his possibly eternal soul.
Moses teaches us that adding to or subtracting from the Torah is a severe corruption, on par with idolatry, and precisely why Moses inserted it in his rebuke of Baal Peor. Altering the Torah – even in the name of religious Judaism – shares the same perversion as idolatry. Moses teaches this by including adding and subtracting in the address of Baal Peor. In truth, Moses did not leave Baal Peor and return to it…he never stopped discussing idolatry when he mentioned adding and subtracting from Torah.
To be clear, the primary corruption in idolatry is man’s acceptance of his imagination, instead of accepting what is real and proven. He is psychotic, defined as “impaired contact with reality”. This accusation equally applies to one who changes God’s commands, regardless of motive. He too accepts his own feelings, over reality…i.e., God’s words.
Do we add or subtract today in the name of Judaism? Radak cites a few views on the prophet Tzefania 1:8 where God punished Jews for sinning by “wearing strange garments”. Radak’s final citation is of an opinion that says the Jews’ sin was this: “dressing to look more righteous than other Jews”. This is the interpretation of “strange clothing”…strange when compared to the clothing of their peers. And Radak calls this “evil”. So does the prophet.
Those Jews attempted to parade their piety. Their insecurity forced them to seek the applause of their peers, so they dressed in certain garments that were understood back then as being “pious”. But in truth, clothing cannot be pious: only people are pious. It matters none how we dress, provided we are modest. There are no laws in the Torah about a dress code, unless we are priests. Therefore, is it not wrong – and prohibited – to “add” to the Torah by dressing a certain way in the name of Jewish piety? Are we not violating Moses very words? Doesn’t God know better than us? Since He did not command us in a style of clothing, nor did the Rabbis, then we must not use clothing as a means of religious expression. This shares the corruption of idolatry, as we are adding to what God commanded us. One might respond in defense, that this is not “adding” since no one says it’s a “mitzvah”. Regardless, it is viewed as a “right thing to do” by those who wear different clothing than the majority of Jews. And it matters none that the majority of Jews are not observant.
This criticism is applicable to all Jews who seek to publicize their piety. The prophet Micah (6:8) says we are to “walk humbly with God”. Humility demands that we do not draw attention to ourselves. Yet the religious costume so prevalent in Judaism – the black hat and suit, beard, and white shirt – is not only baseless in Torah, but it leads to tragic repercussions. (I exclude this critique for those who grow beards based on halachik reasons.)
Young men and women, who actually value this costume, take it to extremes. They base their dating choices on this costume. Funny thing is this: couples that marry based on this costume…also get divorced. Evidently the costume failed. And even that doesn’t wake them up to realize the absurdity in seeking a costume, more than a person. If the prospective match doesn’t wear the costume, they will reject that person. Sadly, they would reject Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all others, as they didn’t wear black hats, suits, etc.
Another crime is the “pious” desire of young men to sit and learn for a few years once married, literally demanding the wife’s father support them. Again, “thinking” is absent. First of all, the wife’s father too must learn, so it is wrong to ask him to sacrifice his Torah study for his son-in-law. Also, haven’t these young men learned Pirkei Avos? “If there is no flour, there is no Torah”. This euphemism stresses the need to have a livelihood. For without it (bread) one will not be able to learn. “Good is Torah study with business; for with the labor of both, one will not sin”.
Over recent centuries, Judaism has been distorted into numerous movements. Each one has their own “new prescriptions” which God evidently forgot. Their philosophic crimes of adding and subtracting run the gamut from permitting driving on Sabbath, altering the Siddur, human deification, consulting the dead, violating Moses and the prophets, creating new “halachos”, suspecting others of flaws based on clothing, viewing beards as holy, assuming God is subject to division by saying “part of Him is in each of us”, viewing gentiles as a lesser creation than the Jew…the list goes on. And if you think about all these stupidities, one emotion is to blame: ego. The corrupt movement is overconfident in their position, it views others lower than themselves, or they seek applause to justify their egos so they make changes in Torah that are public, i.e., dress, and communal law alterations.
Thinking has become a lost art.
Torah study has been replaced by following the blind masses.
If people would study, they would have learned Tzefania’s warning against using clothing as a means to feed their egos. They would know about Moses’ command not to add or subtract from the Torah.
If people thought, they would realize a better marriage choice is when you marry a person, not his or her outfit.
Thought: use it to regularly determine if what you follow are the masses, or God’s commands. If Moses realized the need to address Jews who witnessed Sinai not to add, we must not feel we are any better, and do not fall prey to this idolatrous corruption.