"That which I have commanded you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it.” What can be clearer than this? Things are said and we are expected to obey without adding or subtracting. There are commandments and they have to be fulfilled to the letter, no more no less. Not harder nor easier, no additions and no omissions. What was received is to be handled. There is also no doubt that at these times we find a side that goes for the lesser, even to the nullification and abandonment of all, while there are also those who demand a more stern approach, adding limitations upon limitations whenever and wherever they can.
Maybe the right thing to do is actually read this a little differently. In the Hebrew sentence the reference is in singular form, Ha Davar ("הַדָּבָר") – not in the plural. "That which I have commanded” is actually in the singular form and therefore it teaches away from “all the statutes and the judgments which I am setting before you today.” Maybe the reference is to an idea that corresponds to all those statutes and judgements, a concept that binds them all into one. Maybe in the footsteps of Plato one may argue that all those laws and rules are merely a reflection of one overall idea that includes all the expressions of that concept, the ideal.
Possibly the answer appears at the beginning of our reading of this week’s portion of the Torah. “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you listen to the commandments of the Lord your God, which I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not listen to the commandments of the Lord your God”. The overall concept maybe the blessing that we must pursue in order to enjoy it over and over again. When we can maintain a state where we get blessed repeatedly, we can enjoy the fruits of our actions. This requires us to always go back to the hardcore of our being as a nation, “You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.” It is the ability of retaining the memory of slavery that makes it possible for us to enjoy the blessings that may be bestowed upon us. It is that terrifying memory of a bygone era of slavery that should make us always do that which is right.
The biblical story has no illusions in it and therefore accepts also the possibility of a curse, which is a result of a misguided approach to life, forgetting that which is important, and which leads to the loss of the blessings. It is not immanent, it can be avoided, but it is important to comprehend that it is a possibility. It has everything to do with this one thing, the blessing, and that is tightly bound with our ability to retain the memories of being a nation of slaves. It is a tough burden upon our shoulders that requires that we do not view our personal freedom as self-evident. Even more so, it puts upon us the burden to fight for the personal freedom of every human being. When we enjoy the blessing we are asked to “rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter and your male and female servants and the Levite who is in your town, and the stranger and the orphan and the widow who are in your midst, in the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name.” We may be those who were successful but we have to share it with everybody, those who are close to us but also those who are far remote, those who may be at the bottom of the social ladder. We have a direct responsibility that they can rejoice too. If they cannot rejoice than the blessing is not full and can, God forbid, become a curse.
Therefore, when we are told, “That which I have commanded you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it.” The intent is to be tuned to getting the blessing to materialize. To be cognizant that we may err in our ways and when it happens to be able to navigate to the right course, make the necessary corrections, so that we can ensure that blessings shall be what we enjoy.
This Friday evening sermon marks the last one which I am delivering as the Chair of the Israel Reform Movement. After five years in office, on this coming Wednesday, the responsibility shall be passed to the newly elected board of the IMPJ. It will be an opportunity to change course where necessary, begin new endeavors and cease those which may not have delivered the expected results. Despite the challenge one may feel during times of transition, this transfer is important because it is the only way to allow us to have a chance to enjoy continued blessings. This is therefore the opportunity to wish Yair Lootsteen, the new chair, Lesley Sachs, the new deputy-chair, and the entire board of governors of the IMPJ the best of blessings that we can offer them. This is a challenging position to be in, tough as you can imagine, but also rewarding and fulfilling. They shall bestow on the Reform Movement, in Israel and beyond, more blessings and successes and it will be a time for rejoicing.
Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov.
Reuven Marko, 30 August 2019, 30 Menachem-Av, 5779