Parashat Va-etchanan contains some of the most noteworthy passages in the entire Torah. The Ten Commandments are recorded for a second time. The Shema and its first paragraph are also contained in this portion. But the lines of text that struck me are the lines that read as follows:
And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land…You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you. (Deuteronomy 4:1-2)
I, of course, am not the only one to have taken note of these lines. Rashi, a medieval French scholar, suggests that this passage simply means what it says. You literally should not add or subtract. The Torah says that there are four species, the lulav (palm), etrog (citron), hadasim (myrtle), and aravot (willow) that Jews take on the holiday of Sukkot (Festival of Booths). The Torah does not say to take five, so one should literally not add a fifth species or take away one of the four. Simply do not add and do not subtract.
The Sforno, another medieval commentator from Italy, understands these verses in a different way. He suggests that the verse comes to tell us that "one should not think that once the cause (reason) of the prohibition is removed, then it is not sinful to diminish." Meaning that it is not for us to determine cause or reason for our following of the commandments, rather we simply must follow what is written in the Torah.
These explanations sound simple enough. However, it seems to me that they do not speak to the modern reality of Judaism. The reality is that much of contemporary Jewish practice is not based on the words of the Torah. Practice has been dictated by the rabbis who added much to our understanding of the Torah, both literally and figuratively. In the Diaspora, many Jews celebrate eight days of Passover and eight days of Sukkot, yet nowhere in the Torah will you find a passage that talks about eight days of Passover. You will, however find passages that describe a seven-day holiday. We celebrate an eighth day because the rabbis added an extra day.
Also, let's be honest. It has been a long time since the Torah was understood and interpreted in one specific way. Perhaps it could even be argued that that time never existed. After all, at the original revelation the text of the Bible states specifically that everyone in the nation experienced it. Commentators suggest that not only did everyone experience revelation, but everyone understood it in their own way, "where they were at."
So where does this leave us? It is impossible to claim that over time Jews have not added and subtracted from the Torah. One needs only to look around and reflect on the cornucopia of Jewish practice and expression that exists today, to recognize that truth. We could then relegate our original passage of text to the purgatory that is "texts that made sense for the time they were written, but do not apply now." I think that is one potential easy answer, but that does not allow us to glean an important and applicable message.
Later on in the Torah portion, Moshe makes the following statement to the individuals who stand on the doorstep of the Land of Israel:
The Lord our God made a covenant with us…It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today (Deuteronomy 5:2-3).
Moshe’s words apply as much now as they did then. Each and every Jew has the opportunity and responsibility to make Judaism and their relationship to the Divine their own. Judaism is not something that exists in the past, but must be something that lives and breathes in the present.
To me, the key to understanding the first lines of text, is trying to understand what it means to be a part of the living covenant of the Jewish people. In my mind the prohibition to add or subtract things from the Torah does not refer to simple addition and subtraction. The essence of the idea is that we should not take our relationship to Judaism and God for granted. Frivolous additions and subtractions are forbidden. Intentional and thoughtful additions and subtractions should be embraced.
Why should they be embraced? The truth is that the additions and subtractions that we all make with regard to our personal Judaism have the potential to create divisiveness within the Jewish community, and indeed often do. Our challenge is to be intentional with our Judaism so that we can feel as though, we the living, are a part of the covenant described in the Torah, while embracing others in their quest to do the same.
Prepared by Reuben Posner, Jewish Education Associate in Hillel's Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Vaetchanan