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Rabbi O’s Weekly: Ve’eschanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11) Sometimes It’s Bad to Add

Do not add to the word which I command you, nor diminish from it, to observe the commandments of the Lord your G-d which I command you. Your eyes have seen what G-d did at Baal Peor…(Deuteronomy 4:2-3)
The verse above warns us not to add or subtract mitzvot. From an academic or empirical perspective, this is obvious and intuitive. It is abundantly clear that the Creator of heaven and earth knows better than any person what makes a human being to tick. G-d gave the mitzvot, all of which are opportunities help us get to know ourselves and fulfill our potential. For example, the mitzvah of honoring our parents brings us into situations when we might not feel like visiting, taking a call, or dealing with parents, but the fact that the Torah has commanded me to do it forces me to do something that is out of my comfort zone. The same holds true for prayer. I might not be in the mood or feel particularly spiritual one morning, but I do it anyway. Many people desire an intimate relationship with a person who is married to someone else. It takes self-restraint to resist sensual overtones or other strong internal passions but by doing so, a man or woman gives himself or herself the message that I am in control of my feelings and desires; they are not in control of me. Who is strong asks the sage in Pirkei Avotthe person who can overpower his or her internal negative impulses. Whether it is being respectful to a difficult parent, learning Torah even when a person is exhausted or is not as academically gifted as some of his or her classmates, or having an affair, all are opportunities for us to live for something more than ourselves. These are just a few of the many examples of why we refer to the mitzvos of the Torah as opportunities. The Almighty knows exactly what we need and precisely how and when to take us out the bubble of comfort we have created for ourselves. Therefore, it is obvious that one can neither add nor subtract from the perfect system of mitzvos. But why is the warning against adding mitzvos juxtaposed beside remembering about the destruction that took place when some of the Jews of that era worshipped the idol referred to as Baal Peor?
Before answering, we first need to know what exactly Baal Peor was and how it was worshipped. The Talmud gives relates two incidents revealing how people paid homage to Baal Peor.
There was once a gentile woman who was very ill. She vowed: ‘If I recover from my illness, I will go and worship every idol in the world.’ She recovered, and proceeded to worship every idol [she could find]. When she came to Peor, she asked, ‘How is this one worshipped?’ They told her, ‘One eats greens and drinks strong drink, and then defecates before the idol.’ The woman responded, ‘I’d rather become ill again than worship an idol in such a [revolting] manner.’
A man named Sabta from the town of Avlas, once…entered [the area where the Baal Peor idol was] and uncovered himself before it… (Sanherin 64a)
The way people served this idol was to get naked in front of it and then defecate. Why was this idol so attractive to many of the Jews at that time? Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky (1891-1986) suggests a novel approach. Perhaps their intention was to use this bizarre ritual as a tool for self-growth. The biggest fear for many people is shame; they will do anything to avoid being embarrassed. There is a famous adage in Judaism that “a shy person does not learn.” If one’s fear is so paralyzing that (s)he won’t ask a question in a classroom or situation where (s)he needs to know something, then that person will be severely handicapped in his or her ability to learn. No one wants to be seen naked or relieving himself, and therefore they developed an idea to help them confront their fear of embarrassment. Here’s the thought: “Being naked or defecating are things people are embarrassed to do in public; let me confront my fear and do it in the open! This is the best way to overcome the anxiety that paralyzes me so adversely and prevents me from obtaining the things I want in life. I am sick of allowing my fears to rule me and this extreme worship will help me to alleviate them. Even though idolatry is forbidden by the Torah but in this case, the payoff is so great that it is virtually a mitzva because when I overcome my fears, I will be a better and more productive Jew. The bizarre worship of Baal Peor will help me to overcome my insecurities and enable me to be more in touch with myself.”
The reason the Baal Peor incident is juxtaposed alongside the prohibition to neither add nor subtract from the Torah is to learn from their mistaken actions. No matter how helpful a given technique is, if it’s something foreign to the Torah, it is never permitted. Idolatry is forbidden-period, no exceptions.
We are surrounded by ideas and values that are diametrically opposed to classical Jewish values. No matter what people think of it, the Torah has been the beacon of light that has guided the Jewish people for centuries. It needs no revision, editing, or additions. Our job as Jews is to find out what’s inside the Torah and give it the chance to enable us to lead lives we deserve–lives of happiness and contentment. Thousands of years of Jewish history bear witness that when Jews try to change or alter the Torah, they are never successful.
Good Shabbos
(Source: Emes L’Yaakov pp. 471-472; Pirkei Avos 2:6)