Weekly Torah Commentary — Va’etchanan August 3, 2012

“Now, Israel, listen to the rules and laws that I am teaching you to do, so that you will remain alive and come to occupy the land that God, Lord of your fathers, is giving you. Do not add to the word that I am commanding you, and do not subtract from it. You must keep all the commandments of God your Lord, which I am instructing you.” Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:1-2

There have been those who misuse this verse to suggest that rabbinic measures instituted to safeguard the Torah constitute “adding” to it. However, even a cursory search into Rabbinic literature makes clear that all rabbinic decisions in later generations must be clearly distinguished from the Torah given at Sinai. Among others, the Rambam (Maimonides) as well as Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi in his monumental work, the Kuzari, emphasize this point. We do not add to the Torah; we do, however, clarify ways in which its commandments may be safeguarded and upheld for all generations to come.

For example, the Torah commands us to “keep Shabbat”. Practically speaking, what does that mean? The Sages proscribed that candles be lit at sundown on Friday to signal the beginning of Shabbat. This is not “adding to” the Torah; it is simply providing us with a way to enhance our ability to embrace the arrival of Shabbat, to make it special and to focus our attention on this special gift Hashem gave to us – Shabbat.

The issue of not “adding to” is so important because the very first sin committed by a human being was in fact the sin of over-zealousness, adding something to Hashem’s word. (Gen. 1:12) The Torah stands complete and perfect as it was given on Sinai and it is a very straightforward commandment that says we must not add and we must not take away from it.

A few verses later we read, “But you who cling to Hashem, your God – you are all alive today.” 4:4

True LIFE means living in intimacy with God. The concept of ‘clinging to Hashem’ implies that everything we do, even the most mundane task, is an opportunity to draw closer to Him. Everything in life, whether sleeping, eating or praying, should be done for the purpose of attaching ourselves to His Name. In fact, HaRav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of modern Israel, taught that the central virtue of the Jewish people was the conviction that life is not worth living unless it is directed to Hashem.

This verse also suggests another concept regarding the distinction between the Jewish people and the rest of the nations. While every nation is blessed with unique and wonderful individuals, it is only among the children of Israel that the idea of a national attachment to Hashem is expressed: ‘you are all alive today.’

In its very essence, Israel is not a simple conglomerate of individuals, but a deeply connected community, a family, a people. Our strength is in our national adherence to Hashem and to His Torah.

Lastly, in this Torah portion, we have the Shema, the quintessential expression of the heart of Judaism. “Hear, O Israel, God is our Lord, God is One. Love God your Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources.” Deuteronmy 6:4-5

This is Israel’s expression of faith; it accompanies every Jew from birth to the grave and it frames every day of his life for the Shema is recited first thing in the morning and it is the last prayer before we go to sleep at night. With the Shema on their lips, whether in the gas chambers of Auschwitz or staked to bonfires of the Inquisition or trapped in the pogroms of Russia, Jewish martyrs through the centuries went to their deaths for Israel and for Hashem.

Given the uniqueness of the Hebrew language, it will come as no surprise to you that the very word SHEMA carries profound significance. While in English, we may translate it as “hear”, the Hebrew is far richer. SHEMA literally means ‘listen with the intent to obey’ so in our daily recitation of the Shema, we speak to our very souls, reminding ourselves that it is never enough just to “hear” what God says. True “hearing” means that we take in the words and then put them in action in our lives. That’s “SHEMA”.

In Tune with Torah this week – We will soon be coming into the month of Elul, which is the month dedicated to Repentance leading up to Rosh Hashana. It is not too early to ask ourselves whether we “listen with the intent to obey” or do the words of Torah each week go in one ear and out the other without seriously impacting our daily life.

Shabbat Shalom

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