It’s a funny thing about being Jewish, there is no such thing as being an overachiever.
And this week is the holiday of Shavuot when we celebrate the giving of the Torah, yet even when it comes to keeping the commandments, G-d had to tell us (Deut. 4:2):
You shall not add to that which I command you and you shall not subtract from it.
Yet, how many times do I hear about fellow Jews trying to “out-frum” (i.e. be holier than thou) other Jews: whether it’s in terms of Kashrut, Shabbat or even who stayed up the latest for the Passover Seder. Recently, when it came to coronavirus, I was more than a little shocked to read that someone actually attributed the disease to it being a punishment from G-d because women’s skirts are not being worn long enough.
While certainly it’s good to be introspective and there is a strong concept of reward and punishment in Judaism, there is something about us Jews where we tend to want to go a little more and a little farther. In some cases, we are doing “hiddur mitzvah” (beautification of the Mitzvah) which is praiseworthy, but in other cases, we may be adding unnecessary “chumras” (i.e. stringencies) than can backfire religiously. My unequivocal preference is to follow my father’s teaching to me of the Rambam’s “Shvil Ha’zahav” (i.e. the golden path) and not go too far to the left or to the right, but keep a healthy middle-of-the-road approach to life.
The question is when are we doing the right thing such as with a needed “geder” (i.e. fence) to protect our sacred traditions and our people from assimilation, and when are we being a little impulsive, compulsive, or overachievers (which risks pushing people away from Judaism because we may make it more onerous rather than something that can be done naturally and with love)?
The idea of not extending the Jewish laws manifests itself with the Ten Commandment–note there are only ten! Yet, frequently there comes up the notion of an eleventh commandment as if the ten from G-d on Mount Sinai didn’t cover things adequately. Some of the 11th Commandments I’ve come across (the first three which I can agree with):
- Love the stranger (i.e. your neighbor) as yourself. (Lev. 19:34)
- What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. (Hillel)
- “Charity was the eleventh, the unwritten commandment.” (Leon Uris in Exodus)
- Be good, and if you can’t be good be careful (i.e. Don’t get caught).
- Don’t feel guilty if you can’t do the other 10!
As we examine the 11th commandments, in some, we are looking for a quick elevator speech or brief summary of the other ten on how to live our lives. In the others, we are seeking an easy way out or how to get off the hook perhaps because of our own personal weaknesses or inadequacies.
In the end, the number of commandments are what they are, and with 613 throughout the Torah, there is enough to keep us all busy—doing what is right between us and G-d and with our fellow man. While we may like to overachieve in our careers, our education, and our pedigrees, it is not necessary to try to outdo each other religiously. Religion is a matter between us and Hashem and G-d knows what is in our hearts and counts up all our deeds according to His holy Torah with nothing added and nothing subtracted.