Torah Fax    

Friday - Shabbat, July 23 - 24

Torah reading:  VaEtchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11)  
Candle Lighting Time 8:02 PM
Shabbat ends 9:07 PM 

Pirkei Avot Chapter 4

Jewish Arithmetic 

In this week’s parshaof VaEtchanan, Moses continues his final monologue to the Jewish nation. He exhorts them to follow the commandments so that “they will live, come to and inherit the land that G‑d, the G‑d of your forefathers, is giving you.”

Following this general exhortation, Moses adds the following (our Parsha 4:2):

“Do not add to the words of that I am commanding you, nor subtract from it, in order to preserve the commandments of G‑d your G‑d, which I am commanding you.”

This admonition not to add or subtract from the commandments is followed in the next verse by the following, apparently unrelated words:

“Your eyes have seen what G‑d did at Ba’al Pe’or, for G‑d your G‑d has eliminated every man who went after (the idolatry of) Ba’al Pe’or from among you, but you — who remain attached to G‑d, your G‑d - are all alive today.”

Even a cursory examination of the above calls for clarification:

What is the connection between the prohibition against adding or subtracting from the commandments to the worshipping of Ba’al Pe’or? When the Torah juxtaposes two subjects there is usually a thematic connection between them, but what is it here?

Moreover, the worshipping of Ba’al Pe’or was outright idolatry, the most serious of offenses. This tragic episode to which Moses refers brought about the deaths of no less than 24,000 Jews. Adding on to or subtracting from a commandment hardly warrants being compared to idol worship!

Another question that can be raised:

When one surveys the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy, we see that Moses was giving the Jews a “pep talk” to inspire them to observe the commandments. He was not interested, at this point, in discussing the details of the commandments themselves. Only after he concludes his inspirational monologue—which ends later in this week’s parsha—does Moses proceed to enumerate hundreds of the commandments, beginning with recounting the Ten Commandments and continuing from there for most of the balance of this book.

The question therefore arises: Why did Moses include the specific prohibition of not adding onto or subtracting from the commandments here in his introductory monologue?

Moreover, later in chapter thirteen, when Moses enumerates the specific commandments, Moses repeats this admonition not to add onto or subtract from the commandments. Why then was it necessary for him to mention these admonitions here if he was planning to mention it later?

Another set of questions that can be raised: Why is the Torah so opposed to adding onto the commandments? And why was it necessary for the Torah to tell us that we should not subtract from them? Isn’t that quite obvious?

To answer all these questions we must first preface an enigmatic statement in the Talmud that “one who is commanded to do a mitzvah and does it, is greater than the one who does it voluntarily.” This seems to be counterintuitive. And indeed, the Talmud relates that the great sage, Rav Yosef, initially thought that it was the other way around.

Some commentators provide us with a deeper spiritual explanation. When we are obligated to do a mitzvah our yetzer hara-evil inclination - tries to get us not to do it. When there is no outright commandment to perform the Mitzvah, the evil impulse within us has less of a problem if we do good, because the things that we do on our own does not go against our ego. On the contrary, it boosts our ego. The evil inclination is quite happy when our egos are stroked even if it is by doing the right thing. Our yetzer hara knows that once the ego is nurtured it will slowly but surely get us to distance ourselves from doing the things that go against our egos.

However, when we fulfill a Mitzvah because we are compelled to do it by dint of a Divine command it does not normally feed our egos. On the contrary, it force us to acknowledge that there is a Divine Commander whose will we must follow regardless of what we want and what we think is in our self-interest. That, the evil impulse within us strongly opposes. 

This explains why the Torah commands us not to add or subtract from the Mitzvot and why Moses wanted to introduce us to these admonitions even before he was ready to discuss the particulars of the commandments. Moses wanted to impress upon us that observing the commandments is not an exercise in self-actualization nor as a boost to our egos. By adding on to or subtracting from a Mitzvah, we are transforming the Mitzvah from a G‑d ordained act designed to express our devotion to Him exclusively into an act that is self-serving and ego driven. By artificially “enhancing” the Mitzvah we are guilty of turning the Mitzvah from an act of devotion to G‑d into an act of self-glorification.

Thus by subtracting from a Mitzvah, or even by adding on to it, we are not just undermining that particular Mitzvah that we add on to or subtract from. This deviation represents a far more serious breach of our relationship with G‑d if it is motivated by our egos. Indeed, it becomes a form of idol worship.

One could argue that the foregoing appears to contradict another statement in the Talmud that we should not desist from doing a mitzvah even if we do it for ulterior motives. The mian thng is that we do the Mitzvah. That suggests that even if we were to give charity, for example, because we want to be praised and loved, it would still be a good thing. But isn’t that expressing one’s ego?

One simple answer to this question is that when we add on to the Mitzvah, we alter it and transform it into a different act. To illustrate, one who adds a fifth compartment to the Tefillin alters the very character of the Tefillin. So it ceases to be the Mitzvah that G‑d has ordained. Instead, it becomes a creation of the person. It’s like taking flour and baking bread. It is no longer flour. It may be better than flour, but if someone asks you for flour and you bring him bread, you’ve not done what the other person has asked for.

But when one executes the performance of the mitzvah properly, one has fulfilled his or her obligation to G‑d, although they might be lacking the proper intention and mindset.

In other words, the difference between adding on to a mitzvah and doing a mitzvah with ulterior motives (even though in both cases their egos are being nurtured) is that in the former case, one’s mitzvah is solely an expression of one’s own feelings and ego, whereas in the latter it is a combination of serving G‑d the way He desires, coupled with an expression of one’s personal interests.

As long as one has subdued his or her ego by doing the Mitzvah as it was commanded, the person’s ego will be refined, even as the person feels that their ego has been stroked because of the ulterior motive they have in doing the Mitzvah. By continuing to do the Mitzvah, one’s ego will be checked, little by little. Eventually they will perform the Mitzvah for pure motives. This sheds light on the Talmudic statement: “One should always do a Mitzvah even if it is for ulterior motives, for from doing it for ulterior motives one will eventually come to do it for pure motives.” Any proper Mitzvah observance will slowly but surely change the person and ultimately also their motives, because a Mitzvah is objectively a G‑dly force that can change a person.

However, when one alters the very character of the Mitzvah as a means of self-expression there is no redeeming and G‑dly aspect in its observance. It only serves to enhance one’s ego, which will ultimately cause one to slide down the “slippery slope” of egotism until they can even worship the idol of Ba’al Pe’or—arguably the most depraved form of idol worship.

Moses’ admonition to them before their entry into the Promised Land conveys a message to us in our own lives as we are poised to enter into the Messianic Age:

Anticipating and preparing for the coming of Moshiach is one of the foundations of Judaism. However, misguided Messianic beliefs can actually distance us from the Jewish view of Moshiach and the Age of Redemption that we so eagerly await.

Messianism in Judaism is not an antinomian ideology. We don’t believe that in the Messianic Age the commandments will be altered, diminished by us, or entirely discarded - on the contrary. Judaism’s belief in the Moshiach is that he will lead the Jewish people to an age when the teachings of the Torah will become more manifest and accessible. Our observance of the Mitzvot will be observed even more meticulously than we can observe them today.

Jewish Messianism is not about expressing our own desires, even if they are of a spiritual nature. It is entirely about a world that conforms to G‑d’s will, which in the end will be the best and most delightful experience for us as well. 

Moshiach Matters 

The Chatam Sofer (Responsa on Choshen Mishpat, Vol. 6, Responsum 98) explained that in each generation, there is an individual who is fit to be Moshiach and "when the time comes, G‑d will reveal Himself to him and send him." What is required of us at present is thus to be prepared to actually accept Moshiach and create a climate in which he can accomplish his mission and redeem Israel from the exile. (The Rebbe, 25 Cheshvan, 5752—1991)

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