“Therefore, observe faithfully the Instruction-the laws and the rules-with which I charge you today.”
Last week, Moses reminded the Israelites to follow God’s military orders to conquer the land. This week, in Parashat Va-etchanan, Moses reminds them to follow God’s laws to live in the land. Va-etchanan includes the Sh’ma (Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, God is one.”), the Ten Commandments (with slight variations from the version in Exodus), and laws concerning the cities of refuge, among others.
Va-etchanan also states, “You shall not add to the word I command you, nor shall you subtract from it, to observe the commandments of the Lord your God, that I command you.” (Deut. 4:2) This innocuous verse (common among ancient codes of law) challenges rabbinic commentators. From the Torah’s perspective, God’s law is perfect, so of course nothing should be changed. On the other hand, the Torah is silent or vague about many things (e.g., civil damages, marriage, and commerce), and the rabbis had to create a coherent system for Jewish living in changing times. Perforce, they had to interpret the verse very narrowly, to permit the latitude they needed to legislate Jewish life.
Va-etchanan reminds us that from the very start, Jewish life has always depended upon interpretation; nobody has lived “Torah Judaism” literally for 2,500 years. One way of understanding Jewish movements, then, is by locating them on the continuum of interpretation from minimalism to maximalism. What keeps the Jewish people intact is not the wide variety of answers, but rather, the constancy of the single question (What does this mean?) we ask the text.
Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,