Va-Ethannan
For the week of July 31, 2004 / 13 Av 5764
Torah: Devarim / Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26
Originally published the week of August 4, 2001 / 15 Av 5761

Keep the Commandments

Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you (Devarim / Deuteronomy 4:2).

The word here translated "keep" is from the Hebrew shamar, meaning to watch over or to guard. It is the same word as is used in Psalm 121:4, where we read, "he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep." This suggests that to keep the commandments is something different from just doing them.

The contrast expressed in this verse supports this. There is something in how we are to relate to Godís commands beyond the need to do them. The contrast here is between that of adding to and subtracting from God's command as opposed to keeping them. If shamar meant simply doing, then the verse makes no sense. This verse is more concerned about what God is commanding, then about performing those commands. Of course we should do what God says and not do what he forbids, but that is not the issue in this statement.

Before we could actually follow God's instructions, we need to be clear what those instructions are. God specifically forbids our changing his word in any way, either through additions or deletions.

The way to ensure that we would adhere to God's actual commandments rather than other people's versions of them, was for us to keep them. We were to watch over the commandments just like a shepherd watches over sheep.

Now it is God's prerogative how the commandments apply and to whom and in which situations. Blindly insisting that we must do things in a certain way under the guise of following God's instructions is not keeping them at all. It is so easy to confuse our understanding of God's commands with what he has actually said.

But if we truly keep watch over God's word, we will come to know what he is actually saying.

Just like it would be difficult to keep watch over two distinct flocks of sheep without getting them mixed up, so we cannot truly keep watch over God's word and our traditions. If we do, they will get mixed up.

God said that we are to keep his commands. We are to watch over them, guard them, make sure none of them goes missing, nor intruders break in.

As we do that, I believe that we will discover what is really there. Then we will be able to do what God is telling us.

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