Thursday, September 11, 2014

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Ki Tavo

Mixed Blessings?

In the middle of the extended section on the calamities and curses that will befall the Israelites if they fail to observe the mitzvot, we find a curious set of verses:

Because you served not the Lord your God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things; therefore shall you serve your enemies which the Lord shall send against you, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things (Devarim, 28:47-48).

Not only have we sinned, the Torah seems to be telling us, but we sinned when we had every opportunity to serve God to the best of our ability, when we were prosperous and happy. And so, as a measure-for-measure punishment, we will be stripped of this goodness and left in a state of dependency and want.

Read this way, the message seems to be that it is easier to serve God when all is going well. But is this actually the case? Often, it is exactly the opposite that is true. When we are dependent and in need, we call out to God. It is when we are successful that we tend to forget God. Sometimes this is because we are drawn after hedonistic, or at least materialistic, pleasures. At other times it is because we grow arrogant, thinking, as the verse states, that "it is my power and the might of my hand that has gotten me this wealth" (8:17).

Most of the time, however, it is not so much that we rebel against or reject God but something subtler and, for that reason, all the more pervasive. It is a variation of Pierre-Simon Laplace's reported response to Napoleon's question ("But where is God in all this?") after he had discussed the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter: "Sire, I had no need for that hypothesis." When we have it good, we have "no need for that hypothesis." God stops being a present force in our life, stops serving an obvious purpose. It is less about rejecting than it is about ignoring and forgetting.

This is of course a problem that we face today. Overall, we have it quite good. What makes us remember God?

One possibility is the drastic answer presented in our parasha: hardship and privation. If the people are taken as slaves, made naked and starving, they will by necessity turn to God to save them. Even less severe circumstances could lead to a profound sense of dependency. Consider the verse at the end of the section of curses: "And your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall fear day and night, and shall have none assurance of your life" (28:66).

The simple sense of this verse is that every moment you will fear the next tragedy that may befall you. But the Talmud (Menachot, 103b), quoted by Rashi, offers another explanation: "you will not have any stored food, but will have to rely on the baker daily for your bread."

When Boris Yeltsin visited the United States in 1989, seeing an American supermarket impressed him more than anything else. As is known, in the U.S.S.R., people had to wait in long lines in hopes of receive basic food items, and here all was available for the taking. The AP reports that on returning to Russia he said to his followers, "Their supermarkets have 30,000 food items... You can't imagine it. It makes the people feel secure."

It is because of this basic sense of security we all take for granted that it is so hard to see God in our lives. As someone once said regarding why tefillah is such a challenge in Modern Orthodox schools: "We are asking the children to pray in a language they don't understand, to a God they might not believe in, for things they don't need." If we are free from basic need, what will make us turn to God?

Undoubtedly, were we reduced to privation and a precarious existence, were our lives "hanging in doubt before us," we would turn to God on a regular basis. But this is certainly not something we would wish on anyone. There is a reason that this is a curse in the Torah. It is an answer of last resort.

So what then is the ideal solution? An answer can be found in the opening of our parasha. There the people are told that they are to bring their first fruits to the Temple and express their gratitude for what God has given them. But it is not just a simple "thank you." For it is easy to say thank you without any real meaning. The Torah, rather, is teaching us how to say thank you.

Before any thank you is uttered, the person first recites what has brought him to this place - the descent to Egypt, the slavery, the calling out to God, God's redeeming of the people, and God's giving the land of Israel to the people. We must pause to remember how and when things were different. If our national history is vivid in our memory, if the hardships faced, wars fought, and challenges overcome are in the forefront of our consciousness, then we will know what God has given us and what God is continuing to give to us.

What is the antidote for the concern that we will not serve God bi'simcha u'bi'tuv levav meirov kol - in joy and gladness of the heart, from an abundance of good? To learn how to appreciate that what we have is from God. Then, the Torah tells us, using almost identical phrasing, vi'samachta bi'kol hatov - you will rejoice in all the good. And it will be a rejoicing that serves God, because you will know that it is kol ha'tov asher natan likha Hashem E-lokhekha, "the good that you have been given by God" (26:11).

Of course, this is easier said than done. The point of giving thanks to God is to cultivate this sense of gratitude and blessedness, but it doesn't happen automatically. We have many blessings in our liturgy which can help us do this - the blessings before food, the blessings after food, blessings on good tidings, on wonders of nature - but if these are said mechanically they will fail to shape our religious sensibilities. The lesson from the recital of the first fruits is that we must not pay attention to what we are saying (already a major accomplishment) but also take the time to truly consider how things were different in the past and how things could be different, were we not so fortunate, in the present.

In a way, this is a variation of the line, "Remember that there are children starving in Africa." As a means of getting a child to eat her food, this statement is probably useless today. But a thoughtful consideration of the privation of others can help a person cultivate a sense of appreciation for the opportunities and advantages that she has been given and a sense of gratitude to God for the blessings that she has received.

This suggests another, related, approach. For in full, the final verse of the first fruits reads thusly: "And you shall rejoice in all the good that God has given you and your household - you, and the Levi, and the stranger in your midst." The command to share our bounty with those less fortunate is not just an outgrowth of our recognition that our prosperity comes from God. It can actually be the source of this recognition.

If we go out and contribute to the betterment of those who are less fortunate than ourselves, if we approach them not just with sympathy but with empathy, if we put ourselves in their place and understand their realities, then it will not be possible for us to take what we have for granted. If we spend more time in homeless shelters, in soup kitchens, and in depressed neighborhoods, we will more deeply appreciate what it is that God has given us.

This does not mean that we are to use these individuals instrumentally so that we can feel more blessed. Far from it! Rather, by truly caring and connecting we will naturally appreciate our blessings, and then, just as naturally, we will be led to share these blessings with them since we will know that, ultimately, all these blessings come from God. And then this virtuous cycle will repeat. The more we feel blessed, the more we will give. And the more we give, the more we will feel blessed.

As Rosh HaShannah approaches let us pray that next year will be one of only blessings and prosperity. And let us do what we need to do to be deserving of these blessings. Let us live our lives with the knowledge that what we have is a blessing from God, so that we may truly rejoice in all the good that God has given us - us and the Levi and the stranger in our midst.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha



Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Ki Teitze

Toward a Torat Chaim: Embracing Conflicting Values

Ki Teitze is a parasha densely packed with mitzvot. Of course, just because there are all these laws does not mean that it is always clear what their parameters are or how they are to be implemented. Should determining this be done only through technical and formal rules, or do values and underlying principles play a role?

In this regard, it is worth noting two discussions in the Talmud around two different mitzvot found in Ki Teitzei. In Devarim 24:17, we read, "Do not take as collateral the cloak of a widow." The Mishna (Baba Metzia, 116a) asks whether this applies to all widows or perhaps only poor widows. The first opinion is that it applies to all widows because the verse does not distinguish. Rabbi Shimon, however, states that it only applies to poor widows. The Talmud explains that Rabbi Shimon believes that one is entitled in the interpretive process to darshinan ta'ama dikra, to use the reasons of the mitzvah to determine its legal parameters. The Talmud refers to this position of Rabbi Shimon in many places, but the general sense is that it is a position that is rejected, that we cannot use our understanding of the reason behind a mitzvah to determine its parameters.

Now contrast this to the Talmudic discussion regarding another mitzvah in Ki Teitze, the mitzvah of perikah and ti'inah, unloading and reloading an animal that is collapsing under its load (Devarim, 22:4). What is the purpose of this mitzvah? Is it, asks the Gemara (Baba Metziah, 32a), to alleviate the suffering of the animal, a concern for tza'ar ba'alei chaim, animal suffering? Or, alternatively, is it a concern for the owner who may lose his donkey, if it dies on him, leaving him stranded by the side of the street? In other words, is animal suffering a Biblical concern or only a rabbinic one?

One reason this matters is that it will determine the weight of our obligation to alleviate the suffering of animals in general. However, the immediate concern of this Gemara is not to extract the value and apply it elsewhere but to use the very value itself in interpreting the parameters of the mitzvah. If, for example, tza'ar ba'alei chaim is the operative principle here, says the Gemara, then the mitzvah would apply even if the donkey was ownerless. However, it would also mean that the primary mitzvah would be unloading, rather than reloading, the animal. If the concern were for the owner, in contrast, there would be no obligation if the animal was ownerless, and the obligation to reload might be as great as that to unload.

The Gemara leaves this question unresolved, but what clearly emerges is that one can use the reason behind a mitzvah to guide the interpretation of the parameters of the mitzvah. What is particularly fascinating is that this Gemara indicates that the application of hermeneutic principles can be guided by what is understood to be the underlying reason of the mitzvah.

How to reconcile this with the earlier statement - that we do not use the underlying reasons for a mitzvah to interpret its legal parameters - is unclear. It seems that sometimes this can be done, but it is not clear when. Certainly, one key factor is whether we can state with any confidence what the underlying principle actually is. If multiple reasons can be given for a mitzvah - which is almost always the case, witness the two explanations for perikah and ti'inah above - then using an assumed reason to guide interpretation would seem much more questionable.  In an article I wrote a few years ago, I explore this issue at length and identify a number of different approaches and criteria as to when the reasons of a mitzvah are or are not used in the process of legal interpretation. The values underpinning the mitzvot can, within certain limited parameters, play a role in the interpretation of a law. But values emerge not only from the mitzvot but from the Torah narratives as well, and the message of a narrative might even, at times, point in an opposite direction than that of certain mitzvot.

The mitzvah of recognizing the first-born son in this week's parasha is an interesting case in point. We are told that a father cannot give the double portion to a younger, more beloved son, and that he is required to recognize the first-born's rightful status and privilege. A moment's reflection, however, will reveal that many narratives of the Torah tell the opposite story. From God's preferring of Hevel's sacrifice of Kayin's, from the choosing of Yitzchak over Yishmael and Yaakov over Esav, all the narratives of the Torah tell the story that what matters is not birth order but righteousness and merit. Scholars call this phenomenon of bypassing the first-born the "usurping of the right of primogeniture" and note that this is a recurring theme through Breishit.

A prime example of this is when Yaakov gives Yosef two tribes, a double portion, thereby favoring him over the older son, Reuven. This is, of course, in direct violation of the prohibition to favor the younger son of the beloved wife (Rachel) over that of the hated wife (Leah)!

Even God violates this law: "So shall you say to Pharaoh: My son, my first-born, is Israel" (Shemot, 4:22). In birth order, Israel is not the first-born of the nations. But God has chosen us, and has given us the status of the first-born, flying in the face of the biblical prohibition!

The point of these narratives is a powerful and revolutionary one: hierarchies of society do not matter as much as personal worth or merit. So how do we deal with the mitzvah in this week's parasha which tells us that we must uphold these societal hierarchies?

It seems we are mandated at times to embrace opposing values. The world is complex, and simple solutions are almost always the wrong ones. On the one hand, societal structures should be maintained - the stability of the society is a key value. On the other hand, we can and should recognize the basic equality of all human beings and judge people and reward people based on merit, not status. Our charge is to find a way to work toward this more ideal vision while not undermining the status quo.

One way to do this in the case of inheritance is through a deathbed bequest. Such an instrument does not change the laws of inheritance; it merely circumvents them by gifting the property before one's death. In fact, we find that the Rabbis did exactly this in creating the vehicle of matanat shekhiv mei'ra, a deathbed bequest, which is not constrained by the laws of the first-born's double portion. In fact, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel states that a father should be praised if he chooses to completely disinherit all his children if they are undeserving (Baba Batra, 133b)! And yet the Torah's mandate of the double portion remains on the books and is binding when one dies intestate. It is in this way that the Torah laws are upheld and the societal structures are preserved while the Torah's vision of a society based on merit is embraced and approximated.

These ideas are potentially dangerous ones. If values can play a role in interpreting the law, even a limited one, and if values open up other avenues even as the law is maintained, what is to say that this won't get out of hand? Who is to stop someone from irresponsibly giving a facile reinterpretation of halakha based on what he thinks the underlying reason is, disregarding all the formal rules and principles of interpretation? What is to stop someone from coming up with a legal workaround that, rather than respecting the law on the books, completely undermines it?

These dangers are very real. We must not turn halakha into the mere expression of a system of values, rejecting the binding and formal nature of the law. The other extreme, however, is equally wrong. We must not jettison the vibrant dynamic of values and law and turn halakha into a rigid system of pure formalisms.

Our task is not an easy one. We must work hard and with vigilance to maintain this dynamic, at once affirming lo darshinan ta'ama dikra, that it would be hubris to think that we can know what the principles are and how to precisely apply them, and tza'ar ba'alei chaim, that Torah principles and similar values guide us as we follow the formal rules to interpret and apply halakha. We must at once insist that the younger son cannot be given a double portion and at the same time find the proper instruments that allow for status based on worth and merit to be recognized. It is only in this way that we will embody a Torat chaim, living a life true both to the Torah's laws and to its deeper values for us and its vision for society.



Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha




Can We Tolerate Dissent?  Can We not?
 

One of the primary institutions needed for the well running of society is its legal system, both the laws proper, and the bodies to adjudicate and enforce those laws.  For those about to enter the Land of Israel, the substance of the laws is no less than all the mitzvot of the Torah.  As to the judicial system that will enforce these laws - that is that focus of the beginning sections of this week's parasha, named, fittingly, Shoftim, judges.
 

The Torah commands not only the appointment of judges and officers of the law throughout the land, it also sets up a High Court and takes serious measures to protect the authority of this court.  We are told that when a matter cannot be resolved otherwise, we are to take it to the place that God has chosen - Jerusalem - and bring it before the "priests and the judge who will be at that time" (17:9).  This body, understood to be the Sanhedrin or High Court, will issue a ruling, and that ruling must be followed without deviation.  Dissent will not be tolerated: "And the person who acts presumptuously, and will not listen to the priest who stands there to serve before the Lord thy God, or unto the judge, that man shall die, and you shall eradicate the evil from Israel" (17:12).  The court will act harshly and decisively to stamp out any threat to its authority.
 

We can understand the need to protect the court's role as the highest and ultimate authority empowered to interpret the law.  If people could interpret and apply the law as they saw fit, general lawlessness would ensue.  Nevertheless, it is hard to identify with the harshness of the response - the death penalty! - for any deviation.  Moreover, such squelching of opposing and critical voices would see to give the court absolute, unchecked power.  What, then, is to stop absolute power from corrupting absolutely?
 

As far as the death penalty is concerned, the Rabbis have significantly limited its scope.While making it clear that the duty to follow the rulings of the court is incumbent upon everyone, the Rabbis have said that the death penalty of the verses is reserved for the zaken mamre, the rebellious elder.  Only a great sage, a great legal scholar, can receive such a punishment.  If he acts in opposition to the court, and not only acts, but - add the Rabbis - rules for others in this manner, then he has positioned himself as a competing legal authority.  Theoretical debate is fine, but to rule in practice against the court is not fine.  This can truly undermine the court, and must be stopped.
 

The Rabbis impose many more criteria that must be met before one can be considered a zaken mamre, effectively making this category moot. With the death penalty effectively removed, how would the court's authority be defended when there was real opposition? Well, there are other ways.
 

In a well-known story, we hear that Rabbi Eliezer ruled that a certain oven was ritually pure while all other rabbis ruled that it was impure. Rabbi Eliezer provides miraculous signs that he is correct: a carob tree is uprooted, a stream of water flows backwards, and the walls of the study house bend in. The punch line that we are all familiar with is when the rabbis say to God: "The Torah is not in Heaven! It is for us to decide!" The authority of the court is so great, this audacious story tells us, that it trumps even God’s own claim as to the true meaning of the Torah!
 

But the story doesn't end there. For the court’s authority has been challenged not only by God, who in the story chuckles and steps back, but also by a great rabbinic sage, someone who is not willing to step down and go quietly, some who acts in highly public and demonstrative ways to prove that he is right.  This, the story tells us, is a serious threat.


This perhaps is the meaning of the carob, the stream, and the walls of the study house. These represent the societal structures and the natural order of things. For Rabbi Eliezer to push his position against the court, was an attempt to reverse the natural order, an act that could shake the foundations of society. And it must be stopped.  And so: "On that day all that objects that R. Eliezer had declared to be ritually clean were brought in and burnt by fire." (Baba Mezia 59b).  Without violence and without putting anyone to death, the rabbis demonstrated, firmly and decisively, that challenges to its authority would not and could not be tolerated.
 

All this is well and good.  But with such absolute authority, who is to keep the court honest? What checks and balances exist over them?  For this, we return to the beginning of the parasha - the appointment of judges. In the United States, the check that the other branches have over the Supreme Court is its ability to appoint and approve of the justices, and to create lower courts.  This echoes the Torah's mandate that the people appoint the judges and also create regional courts: "Judges and officers you shall appoint in all your gates" - that is your cities - "and all your tribes" (16:18).  Regional courts distribute the power somewhat - it is not all concentrated in the hands of the High Court.  Beyond this, there is a mandate that the court not only represent the majority, but that they also work to protect the rights of the marginal and disempowered in society: "You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons… Justice, only justice, you shall pursue." (16:19-20). And the judges must protect themselves against outside influences: "You may not take a bribe" - even, say the Rabbis, if it is with the intent of judging correctly - "for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and corrupts the words of the righteous"(16:19).
 

Structurally, however, there is no one whose role it is to ensure that these mandates are being followed. The court must be its own watchdog.  If they are found violating, they can be disqualified - a type of impeachment - but short of that, it is their own integrity which needs to keep them in check.  It is for this reason that the Torah, in Yitro's advice to Moshe, describes the need for high personal character of the judges.  This and only this is what will keep them honest.
 

But such men are hard to find, and - even when found - can be corrupted by power.  A story is told that when Rav Maimon, the first Minister of Religion in Israel, was looking to re-form the Sanhedrin, he was asked by Ben Gurion: "But where will you find people who are sonei batzah, (Shemot 18:21), despisers of unearned gain?" To which Rav Maimon responded, "With enough money, you can get anything, even sonei batzah."
 

In looking at this system and its challenges, it is clear that a lot rides on the appointment of judges - who is chosen, who does the choosing, who they represent, and the strength of their personal character and integrity. Outside of Israel, halakhic authority is distributed and adherence to it is volitional (as a matter of secular law), and by nature the rabbis and the batei din have to be more responsive to those who would come to them.  In Israel, however, we have courts with real concentrated authority, as described in our parasha. For such a system to be just, to be free of corruption and non-oppressive, the right judges are needed. Without this, such authority can do more harm than good. If we are to have a rabbinic body such as this, then it is incumbent upon as to make sure that we are all - as a society - living up to the mandate of our parasha and ensuring that the judges we appoint are the judges who will truly embody "justice, only justice" for the people whom they serve. With this we will be deserving to merit the blessing of the verse: "So that you will live and possess the land with the Lord your God gives you"(16:20), which teaches us, says Rashi, "that the appointment of fit and proper judges is worthy of give life to the Jewish People and to cause them to dwell in their land."



Shabbat shalom!
Reprinted from 2012

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

Download the PDF of the Parasha Sheet.



Twice in the book of Devarim, Moshe warns the people to keep the totality of the Torah, not adding to or detracting from it. In Parashat Re’eh we read: “Whatsoever I command you, that thing you shall observe to do; you shall not add to it, nor diminish from it” (Devarim, 13:1). This echoes a parallel prohibition in Parashat Va’Etchanan (4:2).

While the literal, simple sense of these verses is that one should not add or detract from the entire body of mitzvot, the halakhic meaning is quite different. As Rashi concisely states:

You shall not add – for instance, five compartments of tfillin, five species for the lulav, and five tzitzit. And similarly is the meaning of “you shall not detract” (on Devarim, 4:2).

That is to say, an individual cannot perform a mitzvah in a way that changes its core components. However, the Talmud never interprets this verse to mean that one should not add to the corpus of mitzvot. To read this verse in the latter sense would raise many challenging questions about the Rabbinic enterprise, for isn’t that what the Rabbis do – create new laws, adding to those that are commanded in the Torah?

Before attempting to answer this question, we should stop to consider what is so wrong with adding to the Torah. The reason to prohibit detracting is clear: It leads to transgression of Torah prohibitions and non-fulfillment of Torah commandments. But why not add? What is wrong with doing more?

The most obvious answer is that doing so would compromise the integrity of the Torah. Adding to the Torah leads to misrepresentations of what the Torah is really saying; it is a perversion of dvar Hashem, of the actual word of God.

This is illustrated by the following tale from Irish mythology. A man travelling in a forest in Ireland chances upon a leprechaun and succeeds in catching him, forcing the leprechaun to reveal under which tree his pot of gold was buried. The Irishman tied a red handkerchief around the trunk of the tree so he would be able to locate it when he returned with a shovel. Before leaving, he made the leprechaun swear that he would not remove the handkerchief. When he returned the next day, he found that the leprechaun had tied red handkerchiefs around every tree in the forest!

We can efface a thing’s identity by adding just as easily as we can by taking away. In the words of the Rabbis: Kol ha’mosif goreya. Whoever adds, diminishes.

There is another danger inherent in adding to the corpus of mitzvot: It may undermine observance. If every law and practice is treated as God’s direct word and given equal weight, then a person who finds herself unable to keep one law might wind up rejecting all, seeing it all, as she does, to be of one piece. The Haredi world, for example, is a culture where the weight of different halakhot tends to be less differentiated (consider the current intransigence of Haredi rabbis when it comes to the practice of metzitza b’peh). Often when people leave this world, they land in a place of full secularism and non-observance rather than finding a home in a different form of Orthodoxy or in one of the other movements. Of course, each individual’s story is different and has its own dynamics, but often we hear that this phenomenon is rooted in a belief that it is all or nothing. If some of it can’t be upheld then none of it can.

A related concern is that adding prohibitions to the Torah can sometimes work at cross-purposes to the Torah’s goals. This is what the Rabbis refer to as a chumrah ha’asi lidei kula, a stringency that leads to an unwarranted leniency. This may happen much more frequently than we are aware, since we are often not sensitive to what we might be sacrificing or compromising by adopting additional strictures. For example, greater demands in the area of ritual mitzvot often translate into compromises in the area of interpersonal mitzvot. 

Consider the following statement from the Shakh, Rabbi Shabtai Kohen, a seventeenth-century, classical commentator on Shulkhan Arukh:

For in the majority of cases there is a leniency (i.e., a compromise of the law) that results in another area because this thing was made forbidden, and it will thus be a stringency that leads to a leniency. And even if it appears that no (unwarranted) leniency will result, it is possible that one thing will lead to another and a hundred steps down this will be the case (Practices of Prohibitions and Allowances, Yoreh Deah, 248).

Now of course, stringencies are sometimes necessary, but in such cases, Shakh warns, the posek must be careful to make it clear that his ruling is merely a stringency and not the actual halakha. This will help ensure that such rulings are not given undo weight and do not compromise more core values and principles.

So the concerns about adding to the Torah are clear – it will undermine the Torah’s identity and potentially undermine observance and compromise core values. So how could the Rabbis do what they did?

This question can be skirted by insisting that the meaning of the verse is restricted to its narrow, halakhic definition – not to add to the core components in the performance of mitzvot, such as five tzitzit. However, both Rambam (twelfth century) and Ramban (thirteenth century) insist that this verse does indeed prohibit adding to the body of mitzvot as a whole.

Rambam states (Laws of Rebels 2:9) that this verse also forbids the Rabbis from presenting a Rabbinic law as a Biblical one, or from representing the meaning of a Biblical law as broader or narrower than it actually is (Laws of Rebels, 2:9). Ramban echoes this position in a slightly nuanced fashion in his commentary on the Torah when he states that one cannot add new practices to those that the Torah commands (Devarim, 4:2).

So now the question returns in full force: But isn’t this what the Rabbis are always doing, adding new practices? Here is Ramban’s answer:

Now regarding what the Rabbis prohibited as safeguards… that activity is a Biblical mitzvah, provided that they make it known that these restrictions are made as a safeguard and are not from God’s word that is in the Torah.

According to Ramban, then, there are two things which make the Rabbinic activity allowed. The first is that they are given explicit license in the Torah to make their legislation and safeguards. This refers to the verse, “u’shmartem mishmarti,” “and you shall guard my ordinances” (Vayikra, 18:30). The Rabbis interpret this to mean, “asu mishmeret li’mishmarti,” “you – the Rabbis – must protect My mitzvot, you must make safeguards.” This is key. It states that there is a value that is equal and opposite to the concern of adding to the Torah: the mandate to protect the Torah, to respond to contemporary realities and create practices, institutions, and laws that will ensure the survival of the Torah.

Does this mean that the concern of adding to the Torah can be discarded? Hardly. Here is where the second part of Ramban’s answer comes in. All of this is only allowed if the Rabbinic legislation does not obfuscate what is and is not the Torah, that is, if the Rabbis clearly identify that their activity is of a Rabbinic nature. This is also the point made by Rambam – the prohibition only applies when Rabbinic rulings are misrepresented as Biblical.

The problem with this is, as Ra’avad states in his critique of Rambam, that the claim that the Rabbis were clear about the lines is not borne out by the facts. There are many laws in the Talmud which are not clearly identified as Rabbinic or Biblical. Moreover, the Rabbis sometimes intentionally present Rabbinic laws as Biblical to give them more backing, i.e., an asmakhta.

Ra’avad thus rejects that there is a problem adding to the mitzvot! He states that the meaning of the prohibition is only that one should not alter the performance of a mitzvah. There is no prohibition against adding to the corpus of what is Biblical – the Rabbis do it all the time!

So, either the Rabbis clearly identify what is Rabbinic and what is Biblical (which they don’t) or the pshat meaning of the verse is inaccurate, and one can add to the mitzvot. Neither explanation is fully satisfactory.

In the end, there are no easy answers. The concerns with adding to the Torah are too often forgotten or ignored. But the importance of the rabbinic safeguards and of well-chosen stringencies cannot be minimized. It is only by maintaining this uneasy dialectic that we can hope to truly succeed both in protecting the Torah and in maintaining its integrity.

Shabbat shalom!