Parshat Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)
Rabbi David Stav
In this week’s reading, Va’etchanan, while restating the commandment to preserve the ways of the Torah, Moses exhorts the people: “Diligently keep the commandments of the Lord, your God, and His testimonies. and His statutes, which He has commanded you. And you shall do what is proper and good in the eyes of the Lord”.
Something about the style of this verse strikes us as odd. Is it not obvious that if we keep God’s commandments, we are doing what is proper and good in His eyes? Is He not the One who gave us these commandments in the first place, and if so, would these commandments not be the righteous thing to do, in His eyes?
Indeed, some commentators took the position that this was the intent of the verse – to tell us that we are to adhere to the commandments, because they are precisely what God sees as the righteous thing to do.
Yet the Talmud explains the verse differently: “The righteous thing in His eyes is [the way of] compromise and going beyond the letter of the law…”. This statement seems strange – after all, the Torah was given to us so that we could determine the truth, which should guide our actions. So why must we strive to achieve compromise, or to go beyond the letter of the law?
Nahmanides (13th-century Spain and Israel), wrote: “At the beginning of the verse, we find the commandment to keep God’s laws, but now, it will be said that in whatever matters God has not commanded you, be sure to act. Moreover, regarding those matters that God has not commanded you, be sure to do what is right and just in His eyes, because he loves all that is right and just.”
In other words, Nahmanides is saying that we should not assume that God merely wants us to perform His commandments, at face value. Much of God’s will concerns cases to which His commandments do not explicitly refer, and in such cases, we are to use our common sense. He continues: “This is a matter of vital theological importance, since it is impossible for the Torah to mention all aspects of a person’s conduct vis-à-vis his neighbors and friends; all of a person’s transactions and the ordinances of all societies and countries.”
The Torah cannot list every scenario that will materialize in the annals of human history, but it can lay out the general principles:
“However, after (the Torah) mentions many of [the scenarios], such as ‘You shall not go around as a talebearer (the prohibition of gossiping and speaking ill of your fellow man),’ ‘You shall not take vengeance nor bear a grudge,’ ‘You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (the prohibition of standing idly by when someone else is being harmed or abused by others),’ ‘You shall not curse the deaf (the prohibition of harming the weak, who cannot defend themselves),’ ‘You shall rise before the elderly (respecting our elders),’ etc. – He went on to state in a general way that in all matters, one should do what is good and right, including even compromising and going beyond the strict requirement of the law.”
In other words, the Torah is trying to teach us that doing what is right and just is a vital, necessary and practical “translation” of the commandments explicitly stated in the text of the Torah. Yet we must not overlook the set of values that guide us when contending with situations that the Torah does not explicitly address.
If we understand that the Torah does not want us to take vengeance or hold grudges, and that it protects the weak, etc., we will also understand that the Torah wants us to strive to compromise and go beyond the letter of the law. Striving to be righteous and just, in the most basic sense, drawing from our own humanity, is the foundation of the Jewish faith.
Several days ago, we observed Tisha B’Av, and we cannot disconnect ourselves from its historical context. Our Sages tell us that Jerusalem “because [the courts] established their rulings on the strict basis of Torah law and did not go beyond the letter of the law.” When deliberating cases, the courts tried to establish the facts of the case, taking only one thing into consideration – the purely judicial circumstances. They did not judge people on how well they upheld values.
I remember standing in line at a grocery store when someone cut in line. When reproached for his behaviour, all the offender had to offer in his defense was, “Where is it written that we are not allowed to cut in line?” The other people who were waiting in line could have reminded him that we are commanded to “do what is righteous and just”.
Nachmanides concludes his remarks from above: “… even if they say that his youth is becoming and his ways are pleasant, [it is not sufficient] unless he is considered right and just in all matters…” Indeed, “to do what is right and just” is not a legal framework designed to establish our relationship with the society we live in. Rather, it is a principle that should be encoded into our heart and mind.