Va-et’channan (And I Pleaded)

Deuteronomy 3:23 to 7:11

After being told by God he will never enter the Promised Land, Moses speaks to the Israelites about the Laws of the Eternal. He states that “nothing can be added or subtracted” … But, does he contradict himself later in the text?

“I pleaded with the Eternal at the time, saying: “O Eternal God, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your Mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land! … But the Eternal was wrathful with me [saying] Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about… Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan….” (Deut. 3:23-27)

And this ends the questions as to whether Moses will ever be able to set foot in the Promised Land. We are not told how Moses reacted to this decision.

Moses and 10 commandmentsThe text immediately turns to the discourse of Moses about the laws: “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 that the Eternal, the God of your ancestors is giving you.” (Deut. 4:1)

In this week’s reading Moses reviews the Ten Commandments. In later parshot he will cover specific laws. However, in this week’s parsha Moses makes two comments which have great impact on how all the laws will be interpreted and practiced.

First: “You shall not add anything to what I command you nor take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you.” (Deut. 4:2) Richard Friedman in his commentary on Torah comments: “this is an essential command; it governs the way Israel is to observe all the other commandments. The second part – not to subtract from the law – is more obvious than the first, but that makes the recognition of the first part all the more important. One may think that, by doing more that the law requires, one is doing better, being more religious, more observant, when one is in fact thus violating the law.” (Richard Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, p.574)

Rashi states: “By definition, perfection cannot be improved upon, so that for one to add to or subtract from the commandments of the Torah is an unacceptable implication that God’s Torah is lacking. The negative commandment forbids one, for example to add a fifth chapter to the four of tefillin, or to add a verse to the three verses of the Priestly blessing. Conversely, it is forbidden to leave one of them out. (The Torah, The Stone Edition, ArtScroll Series, p. 958)

Nehama Leibowitz presents a well known rabbinic dictum (credited to Rabbi Yohanan -200-279 CE) which reads ‘Whoever adds, thereby diminishes.” Any addition is bound to lead to diminution somewhere, upsetting the balance of the general framework of Judaism. (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim/Deuteronomy, p. 47)

Then the second law in this week’s parsha: “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Eternal that it may go well with you…” (Deut. 6:18)

In interpreting this law, Leibowitz looks back to Leviticus: “Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Lev. 19:2) Holiness and righteousness are surely needed to fulfill the goals set by the Eternal. However, it is possible to fulfill all the commands of Torah, yet still fall short of the standards of observance referred to in the statement “Ye shall be holy.” The noted commentator, Rambam, gives an example. Torah warns us against immorality and forbidden foods, but permits marital relations and the partaking of meat and wine. However, the person who overindulges in permitted sexual relations and in excessive eating and drinking, maintaining that these actions are not specifically prohibited in Torah, is not following the intent of the laws… Thus, according to Rambam, this person would be following the “letter-of-the-law,” but violating its spirit, and thus is not considered holy … and is not doing what is “right and good.”(ibid, p.59-60)

By adding the concepts of “what is right and good” and “Ye shall be holy,” we are …sort of … making changes through interpretation to the laws that “can’t be added to or subtracted from.”

Examples can include the following:

Shabbat begins at sunset…. Yet, a worker requests to leave work mid-afternoon on Friday. Would the worker’s superior be wrong to deny this request? Nowhere in Torah does it state that a worker can end work early to celebrate Shabbat…. But, in order to prepare, this is needed. So it would be “right and good” for the worker’s request to be honored. If the boss denied the request, he would appear to be taking unholy actions, even though they are not technically violating any laws or commandments….. Is this adding or subtracting from a law?

A farmer wants to sell his land. For some time he has known that his neighbor has wanted to buy the land. The farmer receives a very generous offer for the land from a person living hundreds of miles away and accepts the offer without giving the neighbor a chance to bid on the land…. Is this right or wrong? …. Would the action be considered “right and good?”

Two men or two women wish to live together, yet are denied the legal rights of a married couple. Leviticus 20:13 tells us “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death – and retain the bloodguilt.” But the Reform Movement has stated that all people are created b’selem Elohim (in the image of God) and as such are to be treated with equal dignity and respect… and are entitled to find happiness and strength in the holiness of their relationships.
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In 2000 a resolution was adopted supporting “Same Gender Officiation” by rabbis. It gave Reform rabbis the right to officiate or not officiate same-gender ceremonies. The resolution stated that a relationship between two people of the same gender can serve as the foundation of a stable Jewish family and is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual. The resolution, however, did not suggest that these ceremonies were “marriages.” It gave each individual rabbi the power to decide, within the context of faith, what each ceremony represented….. Is this “adding or subtracting” from the law… Or is it doing “what is right and good?”

All this just shows how alive the Torah can be in real life.

Earl Sabes

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