How can a chapter which begins with the injunction not to add or subtract anything from the Torah then end with a mitzvah to which the rabbis add exceptions until they subtract it from the realm of possibility?
“There never was and never will be an ir nidachat.” (Sanhedrin 71a) The law of the ir nidachat gives rise to one of the boldest statements of rabbinic interpretation that you’ll find in the Talmud.
But ironically, if you follow the hermeneutics, this conclusion is actually reached not in spite of the law which forbids taking away from the Torah, but actually because of it.
The extreme judgement of the ir nidachat, demanding ALL property be burned, is impossible in light of another prohibition, the one forbidding destroying God’s name. Absolute defeats absolute. One fundamentalist reading cancels out another, and we are reminded of the inescapable need to make interpretive choices in order to understand the Torah.
After all, why does Rabbi Eliezer give primacy to the prohibition to destroy God’s name, and thereby sacrifice the entire institution of the ir nidachat? Why not, as in the case of the Sotah, decide that this cause is important enough that even the Divine name can be erased in the process? If there is an interpretive choice being made, there must be something guiding it. What is it?
The Torah provides us with an answer earlier in the same chapter, fittingly, in the section discussing the false prophet. The false prophet twists God’s message, and the responsibility to recognize this is placed on every Jew. Although he may be able to work miracles, although he may be a charismatic leader who was even a true prophet at one point, we are expected to know it when his interpretation of the Torah becomes corrupted. How?
The Torah answers: “After Hashem your God shall you walk, fear Him, guard His mitzvot, listen to His voice, serve Him and cling to Him.” Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina wonders: how can a person walk after God? Rather, he answers, we are being told to walk in the path set by God’s attributes- just as He clothes the naked, visits the sick, and comforts the bereaved, so must we. As he is gracious and merciful, so must we be gracious and merciful (Sotah 14b).
These are the attributes which need to guide our interpretation of the Torah. An understanding which doesn’t meet this standard belongs to the false prophets. An understanding which does is not adding or subtracting; it’s living Torah as it’s meant to be lived.
This is a blog with reflections on the daily 929 chapter — I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Learn more about 929 at 929.org.il