In the beginning of Parashat VaEtchanan, the Torah presents the prohibition of “Bal Tosif,” the Issur to add to the Torah (Devarim 4:2). Immediately following this prohibition, the Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael that “your eyes have seen what did in Ba’al Pe’or” (4:3), referring to Hashem’s utterly destroying the worshippers of Avodah Zarah Ba’al Pe’or. What exactly is the connection between these two seemingly disparate ideas – the prohibition against adding to the Torah and the remembrance of Hashem’s destroying worshippers of Avodah Zarah?
Rav Moshe Shternbuch explains that a person adds for himself extra Mitzvot (not commanded by the Torah) due to his feeble understanding of the Torah. He thinks that his adding will generate more Kavod Shamayim. In the long run, he thinks, this will create a Kiddush Hashem. What this person fails to understand is that eventually, he will be led to do terrible Aveirot due to his adding to the Torah. This is exactly what happened to Kelal Yisrael atBa’al Pe’or. Kelal Yisrael wanted to disgrace the Avodah Zarah of Ba’al Pe’or, but by doing so, they came to serve it. They wanted to go above and beyond the Torah’s commandments to disgrace the Avodah Zarah, and this led them, unfortunately, to instead serve that form of Avodah Zarah. Instead of going beyond the Torah’s commandments, they should have just done only what they were commanded to do.
In a similar vein, Rav Shternbuch continues, some people think that if the Chachamim and Gedolim of every generation would be lenient beyond Halachic bounds and throw off the strict yoke of Torah slightly, it will help the masses begin to keep the basic tenets of the Torah. But this is a grievous mistake. As the next Pasuk tells us, “VeAtem HaDeveikim BaHashem Elokeichem Chayim Kulechem HaYom” (4:4). It is only through our Deveikut to Hashem and his Torah, without changing one iota of it, that we are regarded as “Chayim.”
There is a famous story told about Maran Rosh HaYeshivah HaRav Shach, zt”l, that can help us to better understand this idea. The story goes that some Bachurim from his Ponevezh Yeshiva were attempting Kiruv in Russia. They told Rav Shach that if they could make a party that included in Russia, then there would be hundreds of Ba’alei Teshuvah. Certainly, they said, it is worth this slight sacrifice in Torah values to attract so many Jews to a Torah lifestyle. Rav Shach told his students that under no circumstances would they be allowed to do so. Hashem wants us to observe the Torah to its every letter and not to deviate from its laws . We were not asked to make Ba’alei Teshuvah – we were asked to honor the Torah’s laws. In reality, the unchanged and true Torah sells itself, and genuine Ba’alei Teshuvah are able to recognize that the authenticTorah, not the watered-down version, is really what God has gives us. May we all be Zochim to experience Deveikut to Hashem and his Torah, and be worthy of being called “Chayim.”