Before the lengthy rebuke that characterizes much of Parshas Ki Savo, the Torah promises great rewards for the Jewish people if they follow HaShem’s instructions. This section ends with a warning how the people should not act: “And you shall not turn away from the words that I command you today, to the left or to the right, to go after other gods, to serve them.”
The simple understanding of these words is that they are an exhortation against idol worship. However, the Seforno offers a different explanation. He writes that the Torah was telling the people that they should not confuse Minhagim (customs) that they perform out of habit, with genuine Torah Mitzvos. Rav Moshe Sternbuch Shlita, explains that the Seforno is including Minhagim that have a genuine basis in Jewish law. The Seforno is saying that Minhagim should be viewed as ways of protecting or facilitating the Mitzvos of the Torah and they should not be viewed as the ikar Mitzvo (an end in and of itself). When this pitfall occurs, a person will fail to differentiate between Torah Mitzvos, and Minhagim or stringencies and this can have dire consequences.
Indeed, probably the most damaging sin in history came about as a result of confusion between stringencies and HaShem’s command. In Parshas Bereishis, HaShem commanded Adam HaRishon not to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. However, when the snake asked Chava about the tree, Chava answered that they were commanded not to eat from the tree and to not even touch it and were they to do either, they would die. Why did she add the prohibition to touch the tree when HaShem had said nothing about touching it? Chazal tell us that HaShem instructed Adam not to eat the tree and when he transmitted HaShem’s instructions to Chava, he added the prohibition not to touch the tree. His intentions were noble, in that he wanted to make an extra boundary protecting Chava from eating from the tree. However, his mistake was that he did not tell Chava that the prohibition to touch the tree was not from HaShem, rather it was of his own initiative. Accordingly, when the snake pushed Chava into the tree and nothing happened, the snake proved to her that just as nothing negative happened when she touched the tree, so too nothing would happen if she would eat from the tree. There was nothing necessarily wrong with Adam’s additional instruction in and of itself. However, the fact that he did not inform Chava that it was his own added stringency and not from HaShem led to confusion that had grave consequences.
In addition to not confusing Minhagim with Torah Mitzvos, the Seforno, as explained by Rav Sternbuch, pointed out that one should not forget that Minhagim are not ends in themselves, rather they are supposed to serve the purpose of enabling us to keep Mitzvos. In a similar vein, some Minhagim also serve the purpose of teaching us character traits that are essential to our Avodas HaShem, and again one must be careful not to strictly adhere to the Minhag whilst forgetting its lesson. The following stories demonstrate how easily one can make this mistake.
The story is told of a Gadol who visited a home for the Friday night meal. As he and his host entered the house, they saw that the challah had not been covered as is the Minhag. The host, upset at this failing in front of his honored guest, proceeded to berate his hapless wife in front of the Gadol. After this outburst, the Gadol gently took him aside and asked him if he knew why we cover the challah? The reason is so as not to embarrass it when we bless on the wine before it. By embarrassing his wife the host demonstrated that he had clearly not internalized the message of this Minhag!
On another Friday night, one yeshiva bachur was invited to the home of someone for the first time. Before the meal began, the host proceeded to chat with his guests for 45 minutes, leaving the bachur to suffer in his own hunger as he waited for the meal to begin. As they got to the table, the host announced that he was skipping Shalom Aleichem and Eishes Chayil because that was the custom of the Chofetz Chaim zt”l . The host may have forgotten that the reason the Chofetz Chaim would do this was because he did not want to make the hungry guests wait a few extra minutes before they could eat. By ignoring the hunger of his guests for 45 minutes, the host demonstrated that he had not internalized the sensitivity to others that this Minhag was supposed to help instill. He remembered the Minhag but ignored its purpose.
The yetser hara has many ways in which it can lead us astray. We have seen that one of them is to make us observe Minhagim at the expense of keeping Mitzvos properly. This lesson has many applications; a person may have a tendency to focus on Kabbalistic matters, whilst forgetting the most fundamental Mitzvos. Rav Yaakov Hillel Shlita, once met a man who proudly told him that it is forbidden to place the fingers of one’s hand between those of his other hand. In the course of their conversation, it became evident that his man did not keep Shabbos! The yetser hara may make a person overly focus on externalities involved in his or her dress code that do not involve actual Jewish law. Such an overemphasis in one area can often cause an under emphasis in Torah Mitzvos. But, as we have seen, the most basic lesson is that one should remember when something is a Minhag and not a Torah Mitzvo, and that this Minhag is intended to teach him some kind of lesson or help him observe the Torah in a better way. May we all merit to understand the purpose of the Mitzvos and Minhagim.