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The Right and the Good (Va’etchanan, Covenant & Conversation)

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11.08.2022

Buried among the epic passages in Va’etchanan – among them the Shema and the Ten Commandments – is a brief passage with large implications for the moral life in Judaism. Here it is together with the preceding verse:

Be very vigilant to keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and the testimonies and decrees with which He has charged you. Do what is right and what is good in the Lord’s eyes, so that it may go well with you, and you may go in and take possession of the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you. (Deut. 6:17-18)

Be very vigilant to keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and the testimonies and decrees with which He has charged you. Do what is right and what is good in the Lord’s eyes, so that it may go well with you, and you may go in and take possession of the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you. (Deut. 6:17-18)

The difficulty is obvious. The preceding verse makes reference to commandments, testimonies, and decrees. This, on the face of it, is the whole of Judaism as far as conduct is concerned. What then is meant by the phrase “the right and the good” that is not already included within the previous verse?

Rashi says it refers to “compromise (that is, not strictly insisting on your rights) and action within or beyond the letter of the law (lifnim mi-shurat ha-din).” The law, as it were, lays down a minimum threshold: this we must do. But the moral life aspires to more than simply doing what we must.[1] The people who most impress us with their goodness and rightness are not merely people who keep the law. The saints and heroes of the moral life go beyond. They do more than they are commanded. They go the extra mile. That, according to Rashi, is what the Torah means by “the right and the good.”

Ramban, while citing Rashi and agreeing with him, goes on to say something slightly different:

At first Moses said that you are to keep His statutes and his testimonies which He commanded you, and now he is stating that even where He has not commanded you, give thought as well to do what is good and right in his eyes, for He loves the good and the right.

Now this is a great principle, for it is impossible to mention in the Torah all aspects of man’s conduct with his neighbours and friends, all his various transactions and the ordinances of all societies and countries. But since He mentioned many of them, such as, “You shall not go around as a talebearer,” “You shall not take vengeance nor bear a grudge,” “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour,” “You shall not curse the deaf,” “You shall rise before the hoary head,” and the like, He went on........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)


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