The Appropriate Orientation to Torah Observance 

Rabbi Reuven Mann

A major theme of the final testaments of Moshe contained in the Book of Devarim is that the prosperous longevity of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael is inextricably connected with their adherence to the commandments of the Torah. It is safe to say that the purpose of conquering the land was to establish a unique society which functions according to the exalted spiritual ideals contained in Hashem’s Torah. It goes without saying that this requires dedication to observing both the letter and the “spirit” of the Mitzvot.

In this week’s Parsha, Vaetchanan, Moshe makes a strong appeal for the Jews to recognize and accept the Divine origin of their Scriptures. This is the crucial foundation which will ensure their permanence in the land that was given to them by Hashem.

Moshe warns them not to make any alterations in the requirements of the commandments (Deut. 4:2). They are not to add to the Mitzvot nor take away from them but rather to follow them precisely as they were revealed. To bolster this point he says, “With your own eyes you have seen what Hashem did in the matter of Baal Peor (the idol which the Jews worshipped as a result of being seduced by the Midianite women), for every man who went after Baal Peor Hashem destroyed from your midst. But, you who cling to the Lord your G-d are all alive this day” (Deut. 4:3,4).

At first glance the juxtaposition of the sin of Baal Peor to that of adding to or subtracting from the Torah seems problematical. The former consisted of sexual promiscuity and worship of idols the most egregious transgression in Judaism. The prohibition of making alterations in the commandments does not seem to be as grievous as the sin of Baal Peor.

Perhaps the answer lies in a better understanding of the prohibition of “Lo Toseefu” (do not add). It is interesting to note that this includes the injunction against diminishing from the mitzva. Yet these two deviations do not seem to be alike.

It is easier to recognize the sinful character of diminishing as, for example, observing only three days of shiva instead of seven and similar lessening of Torah requirements. This person is seeking to free himself of the obligations imposed on him by Hashem or, at least, to reduce them.

However, it is more challenging to understand the sinfulness of the one who adds to the Mitzva as, for example, keeping eight days of Passover. He wants to serve Hashem even beyond what is required. Why is that regarded as such a terrible thing?

I believe that both adding to and subtracting from the Mitzvot fall into the same category of effectuating alterations in the Divine system of commandments. As the psalmist informs us, “The Torah of Hashem is perfect, restoring the soul.” If we regard the Torah as the work of Hashem we must stand in awe of it as the genuine scientist stands in awe of the vast cosmos which reflect the infinite wisdom of the Creator.

The notion of making changes in the guidelines of human conduct set forth by Hashem reeks of supreme hubris. One who does so implies that his personal sense of right and wrong is superior to the moral outlook imbedded in G-d’s commandments.

I believe that it is in that sense that we can understand the comparison to the sin of Baal Peor. One who worships idols negates the supreme might of the Creator and attributes to other beings divine powers. And the one who seeks to make changes in the Torah negates the absolute perfection of Hashem’s Revelation. Both sins partake of a disparagement of the true greatness of the genuine G-d.

It is because of this that Moshe reminds the people, in this Parsha, to remember what they witnessed on Mt. Sinai when an entire nation was gathered to hear the “voice” of Hashem from heaven amidst sights and sounds that could only be regarded as miraculous.

For the study of Torah and performance of it’s mitzvot to produce the greatest results it must be established on the foundation of certainty regarding its divine origin. One who recognizes that the Torah comes from Hashem has the confidence to ask the most challenging questions as to the reasons and benefits of the commandments. Judaism encourages us to seek the highest level of understanding regarding Hashem’s Revelation.

And when the student encounters something that makes no sense to him or seems outdated or is contradicted by the prevailing societal outlook, he stands in awe, surrenders to the Almighty and makes no “modifications” for he regards the Torah as Eternal Truth. 

The benefits of Mitzvot come from observing them exactly as they are and not changing them. “Whoever adds diminishes” (Rambam, Hil. Melachim 11:3). Any change reflects the imposition of man’s subjective religious outlook on the works of the Creator. There is a great temptation, in this day and age, to uproot fundamental Torah principles in basic areas of (sexual) morality and to replace them with a “new” value system. 

All genuine Torah observant Jews should resist any attempts to remake Judaism in the image of the contemporary moral “understanding” which is a replay of traditional hedomism. We should be inspired by the exhortations of Moshe to be faithful to the authentic and eternal teachings of Torah and be mindful that “You who cling unto the Lord your G-d are alive all of you this day.”

Shabbat Shalom