Parashas V’Eschanan, Sefer Devarim
by Braha Bender
Running a religion is a great way to make money. Look at the gurus. Look at Sun Myung Moon of the Moonies. Look at David Miscavige of Scientology. Look at Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope. Billionaires all. Cars, gold, mansions. Ridiculous.
Now look at Rabbi Yoseph Shalom Elyashiv. He lives in a two bedroom apartment in Meah Shearim. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky lives on Rashbam street in Bnei Brak along with about a million other people. The joke goes, “What can you find between two buildings in Bnei Brak? Another building!” (Funny thing is, they aren’t kidding.)
Visit Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg and you’ll see that his walls aren’t even painted in color. They aren’t treated or smoothed or spackled. They’re just whitewashed. His “office” is a desk in the combination living room and dining room off of a small Jerusalem kitchen. The line of visitors waiting to ask his advice winds into the landing of the apartment building.
Quite the departure.
This is not to say that poverty is a Jewish ideal. Rav Yehuda HaNasi, the rabbi who compiled the Mishna, was as wealthy man, as are many wonderful people alive today. He devoted every resource he had towards actualizing the Torah – providing for the underprivileged, creating beautiful havens for Torah study, and fulfilling the many other mitzvos that money can support.
It isn’t that Torah leaders are wealthy or poor, it is that money is not the point. Money doesn’t make Torah-integrated Jews scream for joy. It also doesn’t make them grab their chests with the sudden pain of a heart attack either. It just isn’t one of their larger pieces of internal furniture.
The Torah Jew’s measuring stick for personal success is not wealth or poverty. It is not pleasure or pain. It is not any particular material or physical attainment. Rather, the Torah-integrated Jew measures his or her success in life by how much nearer she has come to actualizing the will of her Creator. It is a perspective shift that changes everything.
The Get-Some Philosophy
Parashas V’Eschanan instructs, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it, to observe the commandments of Hashem, your God…” (Devarim-Deuteronomy 4:2)
Why not add to the word that He commands us? I mean, c’mon, if a little religion is fun, why not a lot of religion? Gold, mitzvos, cars, spirituality – if I like, why not get some more?
Have you ever been in a relationship with someone like this? Where they use you for what they want? That’s not called relationship, that’s called abuse.
The reason get-some logic doesn’t apply to Torah is because Torah is not make believe. Torah is not a trip. It’s not a mind game, it’s not a psychology, and it’s not even a personal growth program. (Gotcha! Didn’t see that one coming, did you?)
Torah is a genuine relationship with the Almighty. He spoke to us. All three million or so at Sinai. It was really Him.
Sure, Torah is the source and context of every tool that will ever make any human being grow, but that is not why we do it. Just like Torah isn’t about selfishly pursuing material wealth, it isn’t about selfish spiritual materialism, either. It isn’t about “me, me, me” and my sacrosanct “personal growth”. It is about doing what He wants because, pashut azoy, I’m in love with Him. I want to do what He wants, no more and no less.
I don’t go to Torah and try on mitzvos like clothes at the mall. The get-some approach applies to situations that are all about me and what I want. But the Almighty asks us to acknowledge His presence in the relationship. As much as the Torah is a gift, and as much as Torah makes us grow and thrive and enjoy, we are meant to keep the Torah on His terms without “adding” or “subtracting” from them.
His Will on His Terms
Okay, so it isn’t about me anymore. But then the question changes: why doesn’t He want us to “add to the word that He commands us”? Isn’t adding to a good thing just more of a good thing?
Here’s the kicker: He’s God. We have to remember that He is infinitely wise, great, and mysterious. There is always more to learn. The list of reasons for how and why He designed His Torah and His mitzvos exactly the way He did go on forever. We do not have Him in the palm of our hands. He doesn’t fit into our heads; He’s too big.
Actualizing the Torah on God’s terms means approaching it with the mindset that He is the authority. In plain terms, He actually knows what He is talking about. I don’t bring the mitzvah to me, I go to the mitzvah; there is wisdom there and beauty there and wonder there if only I don’t give in to the temptation to cut it down to size. The mitzvah is perfect just as it was originally designed; “adding” or “subtracting” from it, despite my best intentions, is totally missing the point.
What point does it miss? “Adding” or “subtracting” from the mitzvah makes me the authority, not God. God already told us how He wants it. My job isn’t to change His will, my job is to honor it.
Of course, feeling inspired and motivated and full of growth is part and parcel of that relationship, but not for their own sake. It isn’t about me feeling inspired, just like it isn’t about me getting rich. It’s about feeling inspired because I’m in love with Him, being motivated because He said so, growing because He created me and commanded me to grow. If He makes me poor, I do whatever He tells me in His Torah. If I’m rich, I do whatever He tells me in His Torah.
I have only one compass and it points true north: straight towards the Source.
That’s part of what makes Torah eternal – it’s so flexible. For example, for one person cutting down on physical indulgences might be the next best step for becoming the kind of person that the Torah describes. For a different person, the very same rabbi might advice sinking his teeth into some ice cream and taking a vacation.
Through his Torah expertise, the rabbi can see that person number one needs to break his addiction to bodily lusts in order to better fulfill halacha (Torah law) and mitzvos. Similarly, he sees that person number two needs to loosen up and have some fun in order to better fulfill halacha and mitzvos.
This is because Torah is not a book of blanket rituals, it is the Almighty’s personal relationship with each and every one of us. We don’t add or subtract from His commandments because His commandments are only the means to an end: connecting with Him.
As we change, our lives change. Our next step becomes something outside our comfort zone, something new. Jewish greatness isn’t about any particular action or possession. It is about staying current and authentic in your relationship with the Almighty at all times by having a rabbi to keep you current with His Torah. As Rabbi Leib Kelemen says, “Judaism is not a religion. It is a relationship.”
“You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it…” Fulfilling the Torah isn’t about how we want to do it, it’s about how He wants us to do it. That’s a relationship.
Besides, what if you don’t feel inspired one morning? This way, you’ve got wings. You’re above feeling inspired or happy or rich or anything else. Changing moods or circumstances don’t move you. You’re just all about finding out and actualizing what God wants, an unshakable hero.