parasha

Vaetchanan 5779

What’s at the Heart of Being Proper and Good?
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites


This week, we will be reading the end of Moses’ first speech in the book of Deuteronomy and the beginning of his second speech. This speech, which begins with the description of the Revelation at Mount Sinai and a repetition of the Ten Commandments, continues with “Shma Yisrael” and moves on to instructions regarding the nation’s proper behavior after parting from its leader, Moses, and entering Canaan under the leadership of Joshua Ben Nun.

One of the beautiful and fascinating things in Judaism is the “drasha”, sermon, of its learned leaders. When the sages studied Moses’ instructions to the Jewish nation, they didn’t find guidance suitable for that time alone, but found many and varied messages and values that are appropriate for generations. Thus, for example, the sages commented on the following verse:

“And you shall do what is proper and good in the eyes of the Lord, in order that it may be well with you, and that you may come and possess the good land which the Lord swore to your forefathers”
(Deuteronomy 6, 18)

Seemingly, this is an instruction given by Moses to a nation about to enter Canaan. But the sages asked: What is “proper” and what is “good”, and what is the difference between them?
The well-known commentator on the Torah, Nachmanides (The Ramban, Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman, Spain, 13th century) said the following:

“Our Rabbis have a beautiful midrash on this verse. They have said: ‘this refers to compromising and going beyond the requirement of the letter of the law.’”

The Ramban continues and explains the meaning of this. The Torah deals often with commandments between people, commandments about society like the prohibition of speaking “lashon hara” (derogatory speech about someone), the prohibition of taking revenge, giving of charity, respecting elders, and more. But there is no way to describe all the possible situations that could arise between people and give specific instructions on how to behave in each situation. Therefore, the general instruction to do what is “proper and good” was given, under the assumption that man has the ability to discern what is proper and what is good and aim to do the right thing.
Compromising, going beyond the requirement of the letter of the law, including speaking and behaving politely – all fall under the category of “proper and good” to which the Torah wants to direct us.
Sticking to the commandments explicitly stated in the Torah while ignoring the needed inference would be ignoring the spirit of things. We are commanded to develop vivid feelings of compassion, sensitivity, love of others, respect of others, and self-respect. These are not simple demands; we are being asked to be superior people who adopt a world view of “proper and good” which projects on every social aspect of our lives.
The Babylonian Talmud speaks of this harshly in a sentence of historic significance.

“Jerusalem was destroyed because they based their judgements [strictly] on the Torah law and did not go beyond the strict requirements of the law”
(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Metziya, page 30)

Jerusalem of the Second Temple period was divided and the various groups were in conflict to the point of bloodshed. But the Talmud points to the root of the problem: when people are strict about “Torah law” and are not flexible, when there is no understanding that a shared life requires compromise, this leads to deep fragmentation and this, in turn, led to the destruction of Jerusalem.

We have just now mourned the destruction of Jerusalem during the fast of Tisha B’Av and we must internalize how to be worthy of the rebuilding of Jerusalem and complete redemption. We must adopt a lifestyle that is compassionate and understanding of others, that adopts the spirit of the Torah’s commandments and adheres to a life that goes beyond the strict requirements of the law.

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