Adding and Subtracting: Paving the Way for Ba’al Pe’or

Each year on Perashat Va’etchanan, I am reminded of a profound article penned by the students of Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz of blessed memory. Last year, I delivered an afternoon class on the topic, but did not have the opportunity to relay the ideas in print.

No Addition or Subtraction
There is a Torah concept called “Bal Tosif/Bal Tigra“. Broadly speaking, the Torah prohibits adding or detracting mitzvot – or details of mitzvot – from the Torah. So, for example, I cannot claim that there is a 614th mitzvah in the Torah, or suggest that there are only 612 mitzvot. Another violation would involve inserting an additional species to, or removing a species from the Lulav, Willow, myrtle and Etrog.

What is surprising about the passage in Va’etchanan is that, after introducing this law, Moshe Rabenu adds,

ג עֵינֵיכֶם, הָרֹאוֹת, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה יְהוָה, בְּבַעַל פְּעוֹר
כִּי כָל-הָאִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר הָלַךְ אַחֲרֵי בַעַל-פְּעוֹר–הִשְׁמִידוֹ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מִקִּרְבֶּךָ

Your eyes have seen what the LORD did in Baal-peor;
for all the men that followed the Baal of Peor, the LORD thy God hath destroyed them from the midst of thee.

What’s the Connection?
Rabbi Shmulevitz asks the obvious question: What is the connection between these two passages? How does caution not to add or detract from the Torah relate to the idolatrous worship of Ba’al Pe’or that claimed so many Jewish lives?

The answer lies in the nature of the worship of Ba’al Pe’or. The Talmud (Sanhedrin) records that even the most devout idolaters of other cultures were revolted by the cult: Worshippers of Ba’al Pe’or consumed whiskey and fruit, then defacated in front of their statue!

Question: Certainly, religions the world over worship their gods by showing reverence to them, not disgracing them. What, then, is the secret message of the Peoritic cult?

Answer: For Ba’al Pe’or, nothing is sacred! Ba’al Pe’or is the epitome of religious and moral anarchy! This stands in sharp contrast to the Torah lifestyle, which defines parameters of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and belief.

Rav Shmulevitz then cites several examples of how the Torah makes every effort to keep each Jew within the framework: At times, the Torah seems to capitulate to man’s frailities by permitting behaviors that should most reasonably be forbidden.

Wartime Pressures
In the case of the “Eshat Yifat To’ar”; the Torah permits the Jewish soldier – in the heat of war – to take a woman he finds there, convert her, and marry her. The acceptance of human fraility, and the codification of this element in halacha is known as דברה תורה כנגד יצר הרע – the Torah spoke in response to man’s evil inclination. Says Rav Shmulevitz: The Torah is intent on keeping the Jew within its framework; instead of forbidding such behavior as illicit, the Torah instead created a halachic framework to permit it.

Cities of Refuge
The phenomenon of Cities of Refuge – into which a manslaughterer runs for his life from the vengeful relative – is yet another instance of the same concept: In it, the Torah recognizes the passionate desire for revenge of a person whose relative was killed through negligence. Instead of requring him to suppress this natural inclination, the Torah gives it expression, within limits. Once again, a halachic framework is initiated to keep Jews “in the fold”.

Back to Bal Tosif
Returning now to “Bal Tosif and Bal Tigra” – adding or detracting from the Torah:

Jewish tradition recognizes 613 mitzvot. Although the classical commentators debate just what mitzvot comprise the 613, the number is not disputed. One who adds or detracts a mitzvah has shattered this framework, blemishing the integrity of the system.

What links Bal Tosif and the cult of Ba’al Pe’or is disregard for boundaries. The difference between them is a matter of degree, and not of kind. Moshe therefore follows his warning not to add or detract from the Torah with a review of the punishment for those who worshipped Ba’al Pe’or; the ultimate result of adding or detracting from the Torah – is moral anarchy.

As I mentioned during our shiur last year, the Torah’s stretching of its framework to keep Jews in the fold has crucial ramifications for child-rearing: For many years, we have allowed our children to sip wine and other spirits at the Shabbat table under our supervision and guidance. We don’t want a situation in which our kids, because of the “mystique” of alcohol, find themselves in a bar at a young age! Similarly, one could argue (though I know many in the Orthodox Jewish world disagree with me) that moderate, structured usage of the internet and other technologies is a good recipe for avoiding clandestine abuse of those same technologies.

For a continuation of the discussion of the Torah “giving in” to man’s inclinations, see Rabbi Michael Rosensweig’s article:

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