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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayishlach: Guarding the guard
"Erect a fence around whatever one is involved in". Our sages instituted precautionary decrees as a safeguard to protect us from transgressing the Torah laws. The Torah refers to that the rabbis should add more prohibitions in regards to intimate relationships. The first person who made a "fence" was Adam. "You shall not add to the word that I command you, and you shall not subtract from it, to observe the commandments of HASHEM, your G'd, that I command you." Adam made a mistake by making a "protective fence" taller than the item it was supposed to protect. There must be a clear distinction between G'd's command and man's "protective fence" around it. In practical halachic rulings it is significant to know what is Torah law and what is rabbinical law. One must learn from the mistake of Adam. Every individual should build his own fences in areas where he knows that he has a weakness.
Make a fence
The next item on the list of things needed to acquire Torah, that the Mishnah enumerates, can be explained in two ways. Some commentaries explain that it means to "erect a fence around whatever one is involved in". Others explain it as "making a fence around one's words."
In the beginning of Pirkei Avos (1:1) it says that the men of the Great Assembly said three things. The third one is: "And you shall make a fence for the Torah." The Rambam explains that this refers to the precautionary decrees that our sages instituted as a safeguard to protect us from transgressing the Torah laws. The Rambam quotes from the Talmud (Yevamos 21a) that this is hinted at in the Torah itself. In the portion that deals with immorality and intimate relationships, it says (Vayikra 18:30): "And you shall guard My guard in order not to perform any of the abominable customs that were done before you and not contaminate yourselves."
The Talmud teaches that the Torah here refers to that the rabbis should add more prohibitions in regards to intimate relationships. For example, the Torah only prohibits having intimate relationships with one's mother. The rabbis added to this that one must not have intimate relationships with one's grandmother. Similarly, the Torah only prohibits intimate relationships with one's daughter and granddaughter. Here again the rabbis added that one must not have intimate relationships with one's great-granddaughter. We find protective measures in many other areas of Torah law. For example, the Torah prohibits 39 creative activities on Shabbos. As a "fence" to ensure that we shall not come to do any of these activities, the rabbis instituted that one may not move any tool or utensil that would normally be used for a prohibited activity, unless one needs the space or the tool itself for a permitted use.
In Avos D'Rabbi Nathan (1:5) it says that every individual shall make a "protective fence" just like G'd did in the Torah. He goes on to mention a list of instances where people made fences for themselves. The first person who made a "fence", says Rabbi Nathan, was Adam. G'd commanded Adam (Bereishis 2:17) not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But when Eve was approached by the Serpent, she related (Bereishis 3:3) that G'd had commanded them not to eat and not to touch the forbidden fruit. Rabbi Nathan explains that Adam had decided to add a "protective fence" to G'd's prohibition and he told Eve that they were prohibited, not only from eating, but even from touching the fruit. This seems very strange. Why would Rabbi Nathan bring Adam as an example to show the importance of making a "protective fence"? Adam's precaution was the very cause for the downfall of Adam and Eve. Rashi (Bereishis 3:4) quotes the Midrash Rabbah (19:3) that the Serpent pushed Eve against the fruit till she came to touch it and said to her: "See, nothing happened to you when you touched it. In the same way, nothing will happen to you when you eat the forbidden fruit." And this is how Eve came to eat from the forbidden fruit and served it to her husband.
Do not add or subtract
The Midrash continues that this is what King Solomon says (Mishlei 30:6): "Do not add to His [G'd's] words." We find a similar prohibition in the Torah (Devarim 4:2) where it says: "You shall not add to the word that I command you, and you shall not subtract from it, to observe the commandments of HASHEM, your G'd, that I command you." So how can the rabbis instruct that we should make additional prohibitions as a "protective fence"? Does this not contradict the Torah's prohibition against adding to the commandments? A similar question arises in regards to all the Rabbinic commandments. In a few weeks time we are going to celebrate Hanukkah when we kindle the Hanukkah lights, a commandment instituted by our sages. A few months later we are going to fulfill another rabbinic commandment when we read the Megillah on Purim. How may the rabbis obligate us to observe additional commandments?
We find the answer to these questions in the words of the Midrash itself. The Midrash warns that one shall not make a "protective fence" taller than the item it is supposed to protect. This was Adam's mistake. G'd had clearly instructed him that he may not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. When he repeated G'd's command to Eve, he made it sound as if G'd had prohibited them from touching it as well. That is how the Serpent was able to fool her to say that just as nothing happened when she touched it, nothing would happen if she ate it. Adam should have told Eve that G'd had prohibited that they eat from the Tree. And in order that they should not come to transgress G'd's commandment, he, Adam, added a "protective fence" and said that they should not even touch it. In this way, the "fence" would be clearly understood as a protection, and nothing more than that. By raising the fence to the same level as the actual prohibition, Eve did not differentiate between the two and it caused her to transgress both.
Clearly defined rabbinic commandments
The Midrash teaches that there must be a clear distinction between G'd's command and man's "protective fence" around it. When the Torah instructs that we may neither add to nor subtract from the commandments, it means that the rabbis may not say that G'd gave us in the Torah 613 commandments and we add another few commandments, such as lighting the Hanukkah menorah and reading the Megillah on Purim. But the rabbis do have the authority to add rabbinic commandments as long as they are clearly defined as such. The Talmud (Megillah 7a, see also commentary of Ritva Rosh Hashanah 16a) explains that even these rabbinic commandments were only instituted when the rabbis found a hint or source in the Torah itself. In the same way, when the rabbis instituted added prohibitions in connection with intimate relationships it is clearly based on the words of the Torah itself. Nevertheless they are established as rabbinic commandments, distinct from the actual Torah commandment.
Difference between Torah and rabbinic law
In practical halachic rulings it is significant to know what is Torah law and what is rabbinical law. For example, in the laws of Shabbos we find certain leniencies that apply in case of illness in regards to the laws of rabbinic origin. Often people are confused and do not know what is a Torah law, rabbinic law or a custom. It is therefore important to consult a halachic authority when a question arises in this regard.
Learn from the mistake of Adam
The commentaries explain that the Avos D'Rabbi Nathan also wants to teach that on the one hand it is important to establish "fences" to ensure that one does not transgress any of the commandments. But at the same time, one must know how to do it and learn from the mistake of Adam. As Rabbi Nathan concludes (1:7): "Who caused that Eve touched the fruit? The "fence" that Adam erected."
The Midrash Shmuel explains that the Mishnah teaches that everyone shall make "protective fences" just like the rabbis made "fences" in order to assist the Jewish people in general from transgressing the Torah law, so should every individual build his own fences in areas where he knows that he has a weakness. The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 17a) teaches that a Nazirite who may not drink wine should stay away even from the vineyard itself. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and in order to grow in our study of the Torah and in the fulfillment of its laws, we need to create our personal fences, each one in the area where we need it. In this way, we will be able to overcome our weaknesses and go from "strength to strength" in our service of G'd.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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