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Addition Becomes Subtraction

No, this is not an article about “new math.” In honor of my son, Yoni’s, 28th anniversary on becoming a “bar mitzvah,” I present his Dvar Torah speech on Parshat Va’etchanan.

Dear Rabbis and Honored Guests,

Parshat Va’etchanan contains many mitzvot. I would like to discuss two of them with you. In chapter 4:2 of Va’etchanan the Torah says, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it, to guard the commandments of Hashem, your G-d, that I command you today.”

From this one verse, we learn two mitzvot. The first mitzvah is that a person is not allowed to add to the laws of the Torah. Some examples of adding to the Torah would be sitting in the succah after Succot is over with the intention of doing the mitzvah of Succah, wearing tefillin that contain five parshiot instead of four, shaking five species for the mitzvah of lulav instead of four or wearing five fringes of tzizit instead of four.

The second command contained in this verse is the prohibition in decreasing from any mitzvah in the Torah. Examples of this mitzvah would be to hold not to sit in the succah all seven days of Succot, wearing tefillin that contain only three parshiot, only shaking three species for lulav or only wearing three fringes of tzizit.

Why does the Torah tell us that a person cannot remove a commandment from the Torah?   Obviously, a person can’t do this! If a person was able to subtract from the laws of the Torah, there would no longer be any system of law. The Torah would be a free for all. Any person could choose to keep one or five or twenty commandments. What kind of system of law would this be?

Furthermore and interestingly, the Torah places this commandment “not to subtract,” immediately after the commandment that a person “cannot add” to the commandments of the Torah. If a person isn’t allowed to add to the commandments, then certainly a person shouldn’t be allowed to subtract from them. Once the Torah tells us that you can’t add to the mitzvot, we would be able to deduce that you certainly can’t take away from the commandments. We don’t need the Torah to tell us this idea. So again the question is, why does the Torah have to tell us the idea that we cannot subtract from the mitzvot if we could know this on our own?

To answer this question I would like to tell a story.

There was once a man who borrowed a wooden spoon from his friend and then returned two spoons to him. The friend asked him, “Where did the second spoon come from” and he answered, “The first spoon had given birth to the second.” The friend realized that he was dealing with a fool, so he happily took both spoons. The next time, the man borrowed a different utensil and again returned two. This went on for some time. Each time the person borrowed one item and returned two, claiming that the first had given birth to the second. One day, the man asked to borrow a silver candelabra. His friend was delighted to lend it for he was sure he would get back two. This time, the man did not return anything. Finally, after waiting for some time, the friend came to ask for the return of his candelabra. The man told him, “The candelabra died!” The lender screamed out, “Are you crazy? How can a candelabra die!?” The borrower laughed and answered, “If utensils can give birth, then they can also die.”

We see from this story, that when a person is under the impression that he has a right to add, then he will wind up thinking that he also has the right to subtract. This is the idea of the verse. The Torah Tamemah explains that the Torah is not teaching us two separate commandments. The Torah is only telling us one mitzvah, which is that a person may not add. When the Torah says “do not take away,” or “do not subtract,” it is giving the reason for the prohibition against adding. The Torah is telling us that when a person adds to mitzvot, he or she will wind up subtracting from them as well.

This idea actually occurs in one of the most famous stories in the Torah, the story of Adam and Eve. Hashem tells Adam and Eve that they are permitted to eat from all the trees except one. Eve tells the snake that Hashem said, “You may not eat from it and you may not touch it.” Rashi explains that since Eve added to the commandment of Hashem, therefore she ended up not keeping it. She subtracted it completely from the one God gave. Once a person thinks they have a right to add to the commandments of Hashem, they will eventually think they have a right to subtract from those very same laws.

The only difficulty that remains is the wording of our verse. The verse says, ולא, “don’t add and don’t subtract from the mitzvot.” These words imply that there are two mitzvot, not one as we said.

The Torah Tamemah brings proof that the word “ולא” cannot only mean “and don’t” but it can also mean, “so he will not.” For example, in Parshat Shoftim 17:17, referring to a king the Torah says, “He should not have many wives so that his heart shall not go astray.” The Torah uses the word ולא “and shall not” to show us that there is a causal relationship. If a king has many wives, he will not be able to spend his time learning and leading the nation, and therefore he will go astray.

A second example is also found later in Parshat Shoftim, 20:8. The leaders of the children of Israel are told to say to the men of the nation of Israel before they go out to war, “Any man who is afraid let him return home so he will not melt his brother’s heart as his.” Again, the Torah uses ולא “and so he will not,” to show a causal relationship. If this person who is afraid to go to war would stay and be forced to fight, he would melt his brother’s heart, meaning he would demoralize him.

Therefore, we see that the word ולא “and don’t,” can be used to show a causal relationship. In our verse in Va’etchanan it is used that way. Anyone who feels that the mitzvot can be added to will result in that person thinking they can also decrease or subtract them.

Yoni’s Dvar Torah ends with beautiful thanks to all his family, friends, and his teachers, particularly Rabbi Rodney Feinerman for studying the parsha with him and helping him prepare his speech and special thanks to Mr. Samter, of blessed memory, of Seattle Washington, who taught him so lovingly his Bar Mitzvah Parsha.

My son’s message and understanding of the Torah’s injunction from this week’s parsha rings loud and strong for us today. We have all too many examples over the last 100 years or so, that subtracting from the mitzvot of Judaism does not improve or enhance either the system of social justice or the path to personal perfection. The Torah presents a complete and perfect system designed by and given to all mankind by the Creator of the universe. May we use this “Shabbat of Comfort,” Shabbat Nachamu, to re-embrace all 613 mitzvot referenced in Parshat Va’etchanan.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan