this the text version of yesterday’s (8/1/15) Shabbat sermon –
The portion that we read this morning, called V’etchanan, is one of the richest in the entire Torah. It is marked first of all by the soaring language that is found throughout the entire book of Deuteronomy, some of the most beautiful language in all of the Bible, and I would argue in all of western literature. But it is not just style that makes the parsha so compelling, it is also the what the language is used for, the material that the portion contains. And within just a few passages you can go from the Aseret Ha’Dibrot, the 10 Commandments, to the Shema Yisrael and the v’ahavta paragraph that we are so familiar with from our services, by far the biblical passage that Jews know best.
But this morning I would like to think with you for a few minutes about a less well known verse from this portion. It is often over looked – with the 10 commandments appearing in the 5th chapter, and the Shema in the 6th, this verse is nestled in the 4th, before all of the fireworks begin. It is part of a theme that Moses returns to over and over again in Deuteronomy, namely that he is giving over to Israel the laws and instructions that he, Moses, received from God at Mt Sinai, and it will be Israel’s job to observe those laws. And the verse that I am interested in this morning adds a particular detail to how that process of transmission is supposed to work. It says this: לא תוסיפו על הדבר אשר אנוכי מצוה אתכם – you shall not add anything to what I command you – ולא תגרעו מימנו – nor shall you take anything away from it – BUT keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you.
The peshat – the plain meaning of the verse – is quite clear. You have these words that are contained in the Torah – these commandments that the Torah lays out for you to observe – these and non other! What it says you should do, and do exactly. What it doesn’t say, you should not create, you should not add something new that isn’t already there. In a way it lends a whole new meaning to the sense of a very well known verse, also in this portion, that we know from the Torah service – וזאת התורה אשר שם משה לפני בני ישראל – this is the Torah that Moses put before Israel – this exactly, no additions, no subtractions, this precisely.
I remember the very first time I came across this verse, reading through the Torah as an adult, in preparation for going to rabbinical school. It was immediately puzzling to me. The text was clearly saying don’t add anything to the tradition. But I know already that many things had been added to the Torah’s description of how we are to ‘do Jewish.’ Some of these things were relatively small – lighting Shabbat candles, for example, Some of them were quite big – having a Passover seder, for example, something that is never mentioned in the Torah, has become one of the most important rituals that Jews engage in today. The requirements of a prayer service would be another example. And it is not only rituals that we have added over time – think about Hanukkah, a holiday that is never mentioned in the Torah, or even in the entire Hebrew Bible, and yet in Talmudic times the rabbis added it in to our calendar. Or the second day of Rosh Hashanah, never mentioned in the Torah. Clearly we’ve added a tremendous amount over the years, and yet the verse from this morning’s portion says לא תוסיפו – do not add.
At the same time, it also says do not take away. And yet we absolutely have! The Torah, for example, says quite clearly that a disrespectful son should be taken out and stoned by the city gates. That one the rabbis got rid of. It also says in the Torah that the death penalty should be applied in certain cases. Says it plainly, with no equivocation. But the Talmudic rabbis didn’t like that idea, they didn’t believe in the death penalty, so they wrote it out of the tradition. There are many other examples – the laws of how an adulterous wife should be treated, the laws of the nazarite, the law of a woman whose husband dies and is supposed to marry his brother – all of these rules are clearly, plainly, stated in the Torah, and yet despite the fact that this morning’s verse says לא תגרעו – do not take anything away – over the centuries we have done exactly that.
The point of all of this is to show you that despite what the verse says, the fact of the matter is that the commandments have been changed over time, and in many cases dramatically so. Commandments have been added, commandments have been taken away. Sometimes this has been caused by circumstances – when the Temple was destroyed, the couldn’t fulfill the sacrificial commandments anymore. But sometimes the tradition was added to or subtracted from because the Jews of a particular generation thought that a commandment was not sufficient, or was no longer morally acceptable. And in fact it is really that process – adding to the tradition, taking away from the tradition, changing the tradition over time – it is that process that enables the tradition to stay meaningful and relevant not only for decades, or even centuries, but for millennia – for thousands of years.
And one of the keys to that process is that you cannot read the Bible literally. You cannot read the text as a fundamentalist reads the text, that every word in it is infallible, that every sentence is absolutely accurate. When you read the text that way, like a fundamentalist does, you can arrive at a situation where a man would take a knife to people walking in a gay pride parade in Jerusalem, as happened Thursday. That man – an ultra Orthodox Jew – stabbed Jews in the back in part because I imagine he is a very troubled soul. But he also did it because he reads the Bible as a fundamentalist reads the bible – that it can never change, and that every word of it is true.
But here is the irony of that. By reading the Bible that way – literally, as a fundamentalist – he was taken farther away from God and God’s will, and not closer. Reading the Torah literally made him forget that all people are created in God’s image, whether they are gay or straight, or Jewish or not Jewish for that matter. Reading the Torah literally made him forget that one of the central tenets of the Torah, one of its core values, that is in the 10 commandments of this morning’s portion, is לא תרצח – you shall not murder. Reading the Torah literally made him actually forget what it means to be a Jew.
So you simply cannot follow that verse from this morning’s portion about not adding or taking away. In fact you must sometimes add, and you must sometimes take away. You have to do that, I would argue, to be able to live a full, meaningful, committed Jewish life. Individuals have to do it. Communities have to do it, to put to bed old traditions that are no longer relevant, or to create new traditions that will help people in contemporary times access their Judaism. And in that process of change, of adding, of taking away, of creating new things and following new ideas, what we are actually doing is getting closer to God, and uncovering a deeper sense of what God expects from us and how we should live our lives.