Doing the Right and the Good – Va’ethanan 5778

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

Moses reminds the people Israel to carefully observe all of God’s commandments, decrees, and laws enjoined upon them and to do what is right and good in the sight of God (Deuteronomy 6:17-18). As Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (d. 1270) notes, the contextual meaning of these two verse would have us connect the two verses together so that the meaning is by carefully observing all of God’s rules the people Israel necessarily do what is good and right. But, as Nahmanides further notes, the contextual meaning is not the same as the rabbinic interpretation. The rabbis assert that there are two separate thoughts at work. First, Israelites are required to diligently follow all the commandments. But that alone is insufficient. Nahmanides can well imagine an Israelite who complies with all the commandments yet falls short of human virtue (see his commentary on Leviticus 19:2). So, second, Israelites are required to follow a supplemental course of conduct – what ethicists call supererogatory – that goes above and beyond the law.


Indeed, the rabbis of the Talmud are insistent that Judaism requires virtuous behavior, going so far as to alter the laws of sale, among other laws, to enforce the principle of doing what is right and what is good as well as compelling Jews to avoid behaving like the wicked Sodomites who, according to legend, justified their immorality by claiming to have abided by the letter of the law.


That the rabbis were willing to be so daring – all but conceding that the divine Torah itself was deficient in some way – is a testament to their vision as much as their courage. As a modern Israeli rabbi, Rabbi Yeshayahu Shapiro, reflected: “Judaism is not content to merely proscribe bad acts; Judaism aspires to uproot evil from the human soul. Therefore, the Torah includes specific warnings against matters of the heart.”


Laws can be enforced. But doing the right and the good must come from within. Good conduct can be and should be encouraged. In the end, however, virtue cannot be imposed: it must be pursued.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Rabbi Allen on Twitter