Too Much of a Good Thing?

A lesson often taught by parents to their children is that too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily good. Children may want to eat a second or third piece of cake, or play a favorite video game for an extra hour above many hours already spent on a computer or tablet, but parents likely know that moderation is the best pathway not only in childhood but throughout life.

Surprisingly, the Torah also teaches that when it comes to the practice of Judaism, moderation is also a good thing. In this week’s parasha, Va-etchanan, we read:

You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you. (Deuteronomy 4:2)

It’s fairly easy to understand the Torah’s statement that we should not “take anything away” from what God teaches. Here, we can presume that the Torah is coaching us to fulfill what we have been commanded to do and not less. But what does the Torah mean by saying that we should not “add anything to what I command you?” If we are sufficiently enthusiastic and motivated, why can’t we increase what we do in our observance of Jewish life?

To clarify, I don’t think the Torah means that a person should not aspire to grow in their Jewish knowledge or practice. Instead, the verse above is telling us that we should not, on our own, increase the number of times we perform certain actions beyond what we are supposed to be doing. Thus, Rashi says:

“You shall not add: For example, five instead of four passages in the tefillin, five species in the lulav, or five tzitzit, and similarly, or take anything away using three rather than four.”

And the Talmud provides another example of the mandate not to embellish the normal practice of Judaism:

From where do we learn that a Kohen who goes up to the duchan (the platform from which the Kohanim bless the congregation) should not say since the Torah has given me permission to bless Israel I will add a blessing of my own, for example, may Adonai the God of your ancestors add to you one thousand times? The Torah says, “You shall not add anything.” (Talmud Rosh Hashannah 28a)

Perhaps the Torah is concerned about retaining a sense of uniformity in practice. If the especially exuberant among us seek to extend their practice of Judaism in ways suggested by Rashi and the Talmudic sages, they may fundamentally change the way Judaism is practiced. And while Judaism respects individuality in many areas of Jewish life, it also places a high value on uniformity of practice. We keep our traditions alive and intact largely because the entire community upholds them in reasonably the same way. For example, there may be some individual differences in the way the Passover Seder is celebrated in each home, but we all follow approximately the same outline on the same night using roughly the same book and the same symbols. If it were not for uniformity of practice, it would be hard for a religious community to survive.

Even if the Torah means to teach us that we should strive for uniformity as a community by not embellishing the way we practice our religion, there is still a valuable lesson to be gleaned here. In most areas of life, including Judaism, too much of anything is probably not good for us.

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