Miss Paddington was exclaiming over the beautiful paintings in the Louvre in Paris. Suddenly she came to one and yelled, "How dreadful! How could such a respected museum have such a disgraceful piece in its collection?!"
"Pardon, Madame," a staff member replied, "but it is not a painting. It is a mirror!"
We receive our salaries based on our contracts. Our contracts spell out our responsibilities, exactly how many hours we must work and when, when we have vacation, and how many “sick days” we can call in.
Imagine saying to your boss, “Boss, I love my job. Forty hours a week just isn't enough for me. Can I work overtime, at no extra cost to you?”
Ridiculous, right? Now, imagine your boss's response being: "Absolutely not! Furthermore, any overtime will be subtracted from your minimum base hours! Working ten hours overtime will be the same as missing ten hours of regular time!”
This sounds pretty crazy, but it is just what happens in this week’s Torah portion, Re'eh. G-d is our employer. The Torah is the contract that spells out our responsibilities as Jews, and our work description. It contains the following clause:
“Everything I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall neither add to it, nor subtract from it.”
I can well understand why we cannot subtract a Mitzvah. G-d has 613 Mitzvot and He wants all of them done. We cannot think, "'Thou shall not steal' has expired, or been temporarily lifted." But why can’t we add? Why does it bother G-d if a man wants to be more religious, if he wants to keep 2 days of Shabbat, or wrap Tefillin on both arms? Is paying too much in taxes the same as not paying taxes at all?
What is even more astounding is that the Torah first prohibits us from adding to the Mitzvot, and only afterward does it caution us again subtracting, intimating that the edict against increasing may be even more stringent than that of subtracting!
What is the most famous piece of art in the world? The Mona Lisa, painted 500 years ago in Florence, Italy, by the Italian artist, Leonardo da Vinci, during the Renaissance. It hangs today in the Louvre museum in Paris. Imagine the horror that would ensue if someone attempted to erase even just a small part of the portrait—a part of her gracefully placed arms, her wise eyes, or the most famous part—her mysterious smile. This would be unacceptable!! Until today, lovers of the Mona Lisa talk with shock about that day in 1956, when the lower part of the painting was severely damaged when a vandal doused it with acid. On December 30 of that same year, a young Bolivian damaged the painting by throwing a rock at it. This resulted in the loss of a speck of pigment near the left elbow (which was later painted over). Since then bulletproof glass has shielded the Mona Lisa from any more attacks. In April of 1974, a handicapped woman, upset by the museum's policy for the disabled, sprayed red paint at the painting while it was on display at the Tokyo National Museum. Just six year ago, on August 2, 2009, a Russian woman, distraught over being denied French citizenship, threw a terra cotta mug or teacup, purchased at the museum, at the painting in the Louvre; the vessel shattered against the glass enclosure. In both cases, the painting was undamaged.
But what if an artist wanted to add just a little bit to the Mona Lisa? Maybe replace her nose with something based on designs of today’s plastic surgeons, or give her an accessory of glasses or a hat?
What is Torah? Some say, it is law; others say it is history. Others define it as supreme literature. That is all true.
Our sages tell us that the first word of the Ten Commandments is made up of 4 letters which are an acronym for a statement that describes the Torah: "I (G-d) have taken my soul, I have written it down, and I have given it to you." Torah is G-d’s soul on paper; G-d’s inner mind is reflected in the Torah.
In the Torah G-d envisions a human life with true values of family; marriage with real, life-long, deep commitment; a life filled with goodness and kindness. Imagine if a fine artist gives you an outline to fill in and all you have to do is follow the instructions and fill in the blanks to create a Divine Masterpiece.
The 613 commandments of the Torah are not only a “constitution” of laws, where adding to them makes no difference, and indeed is commendable. The Torah is not only a contract between the Supreme employer and employees. Rather, the Torah is the Divine inner core, the Divine “soul,” expressing itself.
The Mona Lisa was created by a human Italian artist, yet no sane human being would entertain the idea of adding to or subtracting from the portrait. The very thought would be perceived as a disgrace to human intelligence and sensibility. The Torah is the original artwork of the greatest artist of all time; how could any sane individual entertain the idea of tampering with even a single letter?
They tell the story of a rabbi who is in his study when in walks Barry, the town pickpocket. "Rabbi, I was walking down the street and found this wallet lying on the ground. I know that to return a lost article is a Mitzvah in the Torah, so I brought it in. Perhaps you could make an announcement in Shul and find the rightful owner."
The rabbi sees there is a fair amount of cash in the wallet. He is so inspired at Barry's change of heart that he embraces him and congratulates him on his reformation.
Later, the rabbi notices that the gold watch he'd had in his jacket pocket is missing. He calls Barry and asks him if perchance he may have inadvertently taken his watch. Barry confesses.
"I don't understand, Barry. You find a wallet full of cash in the street and you return it, and then you go and steal my gold watch?
Barry answers, "Rabbi, a Mitzvah is a Mitzvah, but business is business."
This idea is eloquently expressed by King David in the book of Psalms:
The laws of G-d are true. Together they are righteous.
King David is saying that the full righteousness of the Mitzvot can only be appreciated when they are “together.” Like a piece of art, or a symphony, they constitute a singular unit; to pick and choose will leave you not with half, but with nothing.
Many have attempted to write Torah 2.0. They argued that if only G-d would have known how sanitary the food conditions would be now with the FDA, kosher laws would be different. If G-d would have known how easy it can be to start a fire—just by turning the key in your car—the laws of Shabbat would be different. If G-d would have known about the struggles of same-gender attractions, he would have rethought the institution of marriage and might have agreed with the California judge.
But the Torah is the inner soul of G-d. Just as there will never be a G-d 2.0, there will never be a Torah 2.0. When we start adding to Mitzvot, it demonstrates that we are out of touch with what Torah is. In a way this is more dangerous, since it is garbed in the guise of extra righteousness. Then the road is ripe to begin to subtract as well.
A man was looking at the paintings in the Louvre in Paris and could not comprehend what was so beautiful and valuable about them. "These paintings aren't special!" he said. A man, a fine artist, was standing nearby and overheard his comment. He turned to the man and said, "These paintings are not on trial. You are!"
The Torah is never on trial; we are!
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Rosh Chodesh Elul,
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