Rabbi Yuki Meir
Former Rosh Kollel in Montevideo
A person goes to the bank and looks over his account statements. He finds a list of expenses that are more or less familiar to him, and familiar sources and amounts of income, too. Suddenly, he spots something that looks quite strange. He questions the clerk, who tells him that it’s a new directive from the bank, to deduct a fixed sum from his account every month. Within seconds the man is shouting angrily, demanding to see the bank manager. Once inside the manager’s office, he demands an explanation as to why these things always happen to him, and why he must suffer just because he wanted to open a small account at the bank and live in peace and quiet.
Thus far the story is more or less routine. But what happens if the clerk’s answer is just the opposite: that the bank has issued a new directive to the effect that a certain sum must be credited to the account each month? Would the man still demand to see the manager? Would he still threaten to take his account elsewhere? Hardly. In fact, in such a situation the man would most probably want to open another two or three accounts right away!
In our parsha, in contrast, we find that God behaves differently. God “opened an account”, as it were, with Bnei Yisrael. Into this account He deposited 613 mitzvot. Anyone who thinks he can “deduct” something from this account – i.e., lower the number of mitzvot that he is obligated to observe – finds himself face to face with an explicit command in the Torah: “You shall not detract”. We have a fixed list of mitzvot, and God does not allow us to detract even a single detail of any of them.
But, on the other hand, there may be people who would like to add mitzvot. What does God say to this? Would He be pleased if we decided to “deposit” into His account? No. In exactly the same verse that commands us not to detract any commandments, the Torah also forbids us to add any. A person who adds to the “account” is considered exactly like someone who “detracts” from it; he is not considered more righteous for this addition.
It’s easy to understand the command not to diminish the mitzvot, but what is the logic behind the prohibition against adding some? Why should God object to a person being strict with himself and adding more commandments, without harming that which God commanded?
The answer lies in a proper understanding of the relationship between the mitzvot. That which we received at Mount Sinai is fundamentally different than an initial investment in a bank account. The money in an account represents a coincidental collection of such-and-such shekels, or dollars, or pesos. There is no essential difference between one currency and another. Our sole desire in managing the account is that it should contain as much money as possible – nothing else. The Torah that was given to us is much more than a collection of 613 individual commandments. It is more of a system, in which all the parts are inter-dependent.
Let us think, for example, of a famous painting. Abraham goes with his wife, Sarah, to the Louvre and sees the Mona Lisa. “Believe me, Sarah,” he tells her, “although it’s a bit expensive, to my mind, it’s not a bad painting at all. But it would be better if it could be touched up to remove the smile.” Sarah, on the other hand, thinks that everything in the picture is just perfect, but that it would be much more beautiful if a cigarette were dangling from the corner of the Mona Lisa’s mouth. Ultimately, their ideas may produce a pretty picture, but it wouldn’t be Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa; rather, it would be an entirely different creation, by Abraham and Sarah.
Similarly, we received a complete system comprised of 613 parts. We must accustom ourselves to thinking that kashrut, charity, Shabbat, and family purity are not separate concepts, but rather individual stones in a great mosaic. A system may suffer from two different problems: missing parts may cause the system to break down, but – in the same measure – extra parts will also impede its functioning. A person who adds or detracts creates a new system that is not the Divinely-given Torah, but rather a different, human creation.
This idea is relevant to each and every one of us. Sometimes it is difficult for us to sense the light that lies within Torah. We carry out one law and another law, without feeling that it’s all part of something truly great. But before we blame Torah, we should examine ourselves: are we relating to what we are dong as an integrated system, or as a collection of details? Are we accepting upon ourselves to fulfill “Torah”, or just a representative sample of some commandments? A Jew who fulfills one mitzvah isn’t doing something bad, but he can’t expect to sense the great light that is the essence of Torah. He will only experience this when he subjects himself and immerses himself in the system as a whole.