For the week ending 15 August 2015 / 30 Av 5775

Parshat Re'eh

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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In this Parsha Moshe warns the people that when they enter the Land of Israel and conquer the various idolatrous nations living there, all of their sacrificial offerings were to take place only in the place designated by G-d. Additionally, they were instructed to avoid adopting any of the idolatrous practices found there, even if they were adapted purely to the service of G-d.

Between this section and the next section which deals with a lengthy discussion of what defines and how to deal with a false prophet from among the Jewish People, a single line is somewhat incongruously inserted: “The entire word that I command you, that shall you observe to do; you shall not add to it and you shall not subtract from it.”(Devarim 13:1) This indicates that whatever is commanded is sufficient. By adding to the Torah on our own we would essentially be ‘weakening’ it and subtracting from it. The fact that this line immediately follows the previous paragraph dealing with sacrificial offerings teaches us that the sacrificial aspect of service to G-d can only be done in the specific manner prescribed by the Torah. Besides prohibiting the adaption of Canaanite idolatrous practices to the Torah’s system of sacrificial offerings, we are also prohibited from making use of any venue that was previously used for idolatry, even for practices permitted by the Torah.

However, from this one-line admonition alone one could reason that it would be permitted to add additional commandments and means of serving G-d that have no connection at all to the Canaanite idolatrous practices. To counter this way of thinking, the Torah states clearly in Parshat Ve’etchanan (Devarim 4:2) that regardless of what type of mitzvah or form of service to G-d one might consider instituting, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, not shall you subtract from it, to observe the commandments of Hashem your G-d, that I command you.”

The Rambam (Maimonides) uses the verse in Parshat Re’eh as a proof of the eternal, permanent and irrevocable nature of the Torah’s commandments. Sefer Haikkrim (Rabbi Yosef Albo) argues with the Rambam and says that the purpose of the verse in Re’eh is not to offer proof of the eternity of the Torah’s commandments, but rather to admonish us not to add or subtract from the commandments of the Torah by adapting formerly idolatrous Canaanite practices.

Abarbanel, however, agrees with the Rambam. The essential foundation of Jewish faith is that the Torah is eternal. When G-d instructs us to observe and guard all of the commandments that He has given us, it is as if He is saying to us, “The mitzvot that I am commanding you are eternal because they are commanded by Me, G-d, and you should keep them forever.” As a result we cannot add to them or subtract from them for how could human beings, on their own accord and according to the limitations of their intellect, possibly tamper with something that the eternal G-d has created for an eternal existence?

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