Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it.
For Reform (and other theologically liberal) Jews, this verse could be problematic. We do “take away” by putting less importance on – and sometimes finding reasons to reject – commandments that seem of a time past such as those about homosexuality or the treatment of women. And we do “add to it” by finding new ways to worship such as Jewish meditation or the use of creative liturgy. But if we take the verse in context – of the words around it and of the time it was given – we can find meaning.
The verses before it, at the end of Chapter 12, warn against being “lured into [the] ways” of the Canaanites, whose worship of other gods includes human sacrifice. The verses that follow, in Chapter 13, warn against false prophets who may urge the worship of other gods. All of these words are spoken by Moses to the descendants of slaves who are about to enter the land and settle as free people.
After 40 years in the desert, protected by God who freed them from Egyptian bondage, the Israelites will find themselves among those who worship other gods and who may urge them to follow those other gods. Succumbing to the lure of these false prophets would lead to adding practices not commanded or ignoring practices that are commanded.
Struggling with words of Torah as we seek a connection with the Divine is not prohibited by this week’s verse. The Rabbis of the Talmud argued about how to understand the commandments in relation to issues that arose in their day. Modern Responsa continue that tradition, seeking meaning in our time. As long as our struggles with words of Torah are “in the name of heaven” we are not adding to or taking away from what God commands.
Transliteration of Hebrew haiku:
Lo toseif alav
V’lo tigrah mimenu
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The Torah In Haiku