Community > Jewish Life > Va-Etchanan: Doing the Right and Decent

Va-Etchanan: Doing the Right and Decent

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department


The main principles of Judaism – the prohibition of idolatry, the principles of the unity, love and fear of god, the Decalogue, the duty of studying the Torah – all are given an honorable mention in this sidra. It also constantly emphasizes the obligation to actually carry out and faithfully observe all the precepts contained in the torah. First:

Now, O Israel listen to the statutes and judgments Which I am teaching you for the purpose of practice (4:1)

See, I have taught you statutes… For you to practice in the land you are going to possess. (4:5)

Then again as a concluding refrain to the account of the Giving of the Torah:

Stray not to the right or left. (5:29)

After these numerous exhortations to put the commandments, statutes and judgments into practice in their daily lives, the Torah once again calls upon us to:

Diligently observe the commandments of the lord your God, His testimonies and statutes which He commanded thee and do what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord.

The question that immediately springs to mind is: Surely this exhortation to do what is right and good is already implied in all the numerous injunctions already enjoined in the torah. Surely one who strictly obeys all the positive and negative commands in the Torah ipso facto fulfils the admonition to do what is “right and good in the eyes of the Lord”! What new obligation then does this admonition imply? Or is it perhaps merely a summary of all that has been stated previously? We must, of course, assume that the Torah does not multiply injunctions merely for rhetorical effect. We have, therefore, to seek the specific contribution of this verse to the whole, one which we could not have deduced from any other dictum in the Torah.

Both Rashi and Ramban explain that this verse implies a further divine injunction not included in what has been recorded previously:

That which is right and good” – this implies a compromise beyond the letter of the law. (Rashi)

Ramban this time agreeing with Rashi elaborates on his explanation:

The idea behind this command is as follows: At beginning He asked us to observe “his statutes and testimonies which He had commanded thee” and now He wished to add that you should do that which is upright and good in His eyes, even in regard to those things where no specific divine command applies, since He loves that which is good and upright. This is a very important principle since it is impossible to record every detail of human behavior in the Torah embracing man’s relations with his neighbors and friends, his business affairs, national and local welfare. But after He had made reference to many aspects such as “thou shalt not go tale-bearing,” “thou shall not take vengeance nor bear a grudge,” “thou shall not stand by the blood of thy neighbor,” “thou shall not curse the deaf,” “thou shall rise up before the hoary head,” etc., He included a general injunction to do that which is good and upright in every matter, accepting where necessary even a compromise in a legal dispute and going beyond the letter of the law.

The Ramban’s words will become clearer if we compare them with another precept occurring in the Torah, enunciating the most sublime principle of divinely ordained conduct.

Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel – Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)

But one question still remains for us to clarify. Surely he who observes all the precepts in the Torah will find himself, of necessity, fulfilling the highest principles of holiness enunciated in the above citation. Holiness and righteousness are surely the logical non-comitants of a total observance of the divine precepts. Is it conceivable that one who observes loyally all the moral and ritual observances of the torah should fall short of the standards of holiness and uprightness implied in the injunctions already referred to of: “ye shall be holy” and “thou shalt do that which is upright and good?”

According to Ramban such a state of affairs is indeed conceivable. Commenting on the above verse from Leviticus he states:

“Separate yourselves from immorality…For whenever you find safeguards against immorality, you find holiness.” This is Rashi’s interpretation but Talmudic comment on this same text limits itself to the following general phrase: “ye shall be separate”.

In my opinion the separation referred to here is not merely to abstention from immorality as Rashi maintains but rather to the abstention invariably referred to in the Talmud, the practicers of which we termed perushim (ascetics). Since the torah warned us against immorality and forbidden foods but permitted marital relations and the partaking of meat and wine, the immoderate person might abuse these dispersions, overindulging in permitted sexual relations and in eating and drinking, maintaining in common with all foolish people that this was not specifically prohibited by the Torah. He would be a fool by authorization of the torah (naval bi-reshut ha-torah). For this reason the Torah adds to its list of explicit prohibitions and injunctions a general admonition to be holy, to sanctify oneself through minimizing hid indulgence in even permitted enjoyments, in food and drink and sex. The Nazirite abstainer is called “holy” by the Torah. Similarly every man should sanctify himself till he attains a higher state of holiness and separation, as it was said of R. Hiyya that he never indulged in idle conversation.

Ramban thus shows how is possible for a man to keep to the letter of the Torah and yet violate its spirit. Often in everyday life there are cases to which no direct and explicit injunction of the Torah applies. But we are called upon to act in these circumstances in accordance with the general principle of holiness and righteousness. This is the implication of those two admonitions “ye shall be holy” and “thou shalt do that which is upright and good”. We may note that, in the former, Ramban confines his examples to precepts governing relations between man and man. Our Rabbis explained the verse in our sidra to refer to relations between man and man in which the individual is called upon not always to stand upon his rights but rather to agree to a compromise in the interests of a higher morality. Here we quote an instructive example of the application of this divine exhortation to practice holiness in our everyday lives:

Rabbah bar Hana’s porters broke him his jars of wine (the Gemara explains that the contract made the porters liable for breakages). He took their cloaks (as a pledge for their compensation they were liable to pay). The porters came to Rav to plead their case. Said Rav to him: Give them back their cloaks. Bar Hana replied: Is this the law!? Rav replied: Yes, “In order that you may go in the way of the upright” (Proverbs 2, 20). So he returned them their cloaks. The porters then said to him: We are poor men and have worked hard all day and we are hungry and have nothing. Said Rav to him: Go and pay them their wages. Bar Hana replied: Is this then the law!? Rav replied: Yes! – “And the paths of the righteous shall thou keep” (Proverbs 2:20). (Bava Mezia 83a)

A further example of the supreme importance of acting in the spirit rather than the letter of the law is epitomized in the following rabbinic saying:

Said R. Yohanan: Jerusalem was destroyed only because they acted in accordance with the letter of the Torah and did not go beyond it. (Bava Mezia 30b)

The practical legal implications of these general moral injunctions may be seen from the following restatement of rabbinic rulings in Maimonides’ Code. These admonitions to be holy and deal uprightly were not intended to be merely high-sounding phrases:

He who sells his land to another is obliged to give his neighbor who has an adjoining field precedence in any sale. Even if the purchaser is a scholar, a neighbor and a kinsman of the vend and the adjoining landowner an ignorant man and complete stranger, the latter takes precedence and may evict the purchase. This is in accordance with the principle stated in Scriptures “and thou shall do that which is right and good”. Our Sages said that since it is all one sale it is only right and good that the adjoining landowner should have prior right of purchase over the one whose fields are far away. (Code Shekhenim, 12:5, see Bava Mezia 108a-108b) A court that has made an order for the creditor to take the actual property of the debtor or property under mortgage in the hands of a purchaser and subsequently the debtor or the purchaser or their heirs acquire enough means and bring the money to the creditor, the property may be discharged and such a seizure for debt is always returnable to the original owner in accordance with the principle “and thou shall do that which is right and good”. (Loveh U-malveh 22:16, see Bava Mezia 16b)

Although by law it would seem that a man can sell his land to anyone he wishes the Torah demands the exercise of the maximum moral consideration.

Let us conclude our study with a quotation on this subject from a modern religious Jewish thinker, R. Yeshaya Shapiro the “rabbi halutz” (d. 1942), who lived as a farmer in Kfar Piness in the Sharon valley in the Holy Land.

The injunction of “ye shall be holy,” implies that the letter of the law must not be strictly adhered to, but as Ramban phrases it “one should follow the intention of the Torah.” Whoever wishes to achieve a perfect observance of the Torah cannot rest content with adhering to it explicit rulings. He must penetrate deeper in order to arrive at the ultimate aim of these rulings. He must penetrate deeper in order to arrive at the ultimate aim of these rulings. He must not only think of that which is good and upright in his own eyes but that “which is upright and good in the eyes of the Lord”. It would seem that this latter injunction added by the Torah to its list of rulings is superfluous since all the divine precepts are designed to show mankind the right way of living. However, there are many things which are permitted by the letter of the law and are only forbidden from the point of view of “thou shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord”. Regarding the seizing of property for a debt our rabbis stated that the law does not demand the return of such property, but it is to be returned in accordance with the injunction of “thou shall do that which is right …”

This special injunction demonstrates that Judaism does not rest content with limiting active evil doing, but also aspires to eradicate potential evil from the soul of man.