For the week of July 28, 2007 / 13 Av 5767
Torah: Devarim / Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26
Addition and Subtraction
Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. 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 4:1,2)
The Bible has rightly been called God's instruction manual, for through it God has revealed how we are to live. It may be surprising to discover how many warnings there are regarding our need to do exactly what he says. These warnings are irrelevant to those who disregard the Bible's teaching, but for those who take it seriously, why would we need to be told over and over again to obey God's commands?
It seems to me that one of the reasons (if not the reason) is that we have a tendency to want to embrace the benefits of relating to the God of the Bible without accepting the obligations that go with it. This way of relating to the Bible takes many forms, but whatever actual form it takes, it is common to pick and choose which parts of the Bible we prefer to integrate into our lives.
I accept that to fully embrace the whole Bible's teaching has its challenges. We don't live in the days of ancient Israel when the Temple was standing and the priests and Levites were fully functioning. We live in the post-Temple, Messianic era. The coming of the Messiah has transformed our relationship to God through the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Ruach Hakodesh (Holy Spirit). Still, a right relationship with God includes a lifestyle submitted to his Word.
This week's Torah reading includes one of the many warnings to follow God's commands. Included are the words, "Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it" . (Devarim / Deuteronomy 4:2). We have already looked briefly at our tendency to subtract from God's Word. While it is necessary to grapple with how to apply the many directives found in the Bible, I would hope that we would at least take it seriously enough to take up that challenge.
But what about the warning not to add to what God says. I don't know if we take this seriously enough. Ancient Jewish leaders created what is referred to as the fence around the Torah. These extra, man-made rules were designed as a buffer to prevent us from breaking God's actual commands by keeping us as far away from them as possible. For example, the Torah forbids doing work on Shabbat (English: Sabbath), but the rabbis forbid even the holding of an implement that might lead to work, though God gave no such prohibition. I appreciate the logic and wisdom in this. If we discover a tendency in ourselves toward certain wrong behaviors, then it is wise to avoid those situations that would normally draw us into those behaviors. Deciding to go beyond God's Word in this way is a good idea, but we must avoid taking our good idea and turning it into God's idea for everyone.
By not adding or subtracting from God's Word, we not only keep ourselves submitted to what God is saying to us, we also keep ourselves from getting in the way of what God is saying to others. We need to differentiate between what God has revealed and our traditions. Traditions may be helpful at the time, but when we add our traditions to what God has said, we misrepresent both him and his Word, thus robbing future generations of truly knowing God and his ways.
If we are really going to take God's Word seriously, it may be necessary to do a little arithmetic. Whatever we have added, we should subtract, and whatever we have subtracted, we need to add.
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