Righteousness is a laudable, though difficult, status to obtain. The book of Ecclesiastes proclaims that there is no person on earth so righteous to be sinless (Ecclesiastes 7:20). Noah was the first person to be called righteous and the only such person in his entire generation (Genesis 6:9). Of all biblical heroes Joseph alone merited the epithet “righteous.” Not even Moses earned that distinction. Given the rarity of righteousness, an auxiliary question is what, precisely, constitutes righteousness. One possible response is intimated in the Song of Moses.
Before he dies, Moses utters a hymn of praise to God. As Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Hertz notes, Moses began his ministry with a song of praise at the Sea of Reeds and he ends his ministry with a song of praise in view of the Promised Land. In effect, Moses career is bracketed by song. The content of his culminating song is as interesting as the phenomenon itself. Moses declares that the God he loyally served is just in all his ways, free of iniquity, righteous, and true (Deuteronomy 32:4). The casual reader would see in this affirmation a needless redundancy. Surely if God is free of iniquity his ways are necessarily just and righteous.
But rather than thinking that the Torah is intent on describing the character of God, perhaps the Torah is offering a lesson about human conduct. God’s righteousness does not need to be defined but human righteousness does. Consider the case of a person who adheres to the letter of law and never commits a wrongful act. That person would certainly merit recognition as a law-abiding citizen, or to use the biblical idiom, “free from iniquity.” But that status alone is insufficient to merit approbation as a righteous person. A righteous person is one who does not merely follows the law but goes above and beyond it. To the righteous person abiding by the law is necessary but not sufficient. Preventing others from committing wrongful acts, through word or deed, is also required. Extending to others a generosity not required by law is a feature of righteousness.
On this Sabbath of Repentance it is imperative to think beyond reassessing conduct, renouncing sin and returning to do what is lawful – as important as that is. The wisest among us will be exploring ways in which we can exceed the requirement of lawfulness and aim for the higher standard of holiness – and thereby secure the status of righteousness.