Re’eh 5777: Doing Right and Good, Denouncing Evil

There is no shortage of specific laws in the book of Deuteronomy—41 mitzvot are found in Parashat Re’eh alone. Yet this book also uses a more general instruction when it offers variants of the expression: “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord” (6:18, 12:28, et al). This is the opposite of the warning issued early in the portion, “You shall not act at all as we now act here, every man as he pleases….” The contrast sets up an opposition between individual conscience, which is considered subjective and unreliable, versus divine instruction, which is universal and timeless. Fair enough, but how can one be sure what God deems right, in general terms?

Several later biblical figures are recognized for doing that which is right and good—kings Asa and Hezekiah are praised in this way. There seems to be both a negative and a positive element to such virtuous conduct. On the negative side, they destroyed cultic sites which the prophets of Israel identified as false worship. On the positive side, they sought out the instruction (Torah) and commands (mitzvot) of the Lord. Hezekiah is said to have searched for God with all of his heart, and as a result, to have succeeded. So, doing that which is right and good in the sight of the Lord includes both a negative and a positive mandate—to purge what is deemed evil, and to pursue and practice that which is good. Still, how to know which is which?

The early rabbis (Tannaim) sought to extract meaning from each of the words, good and right (טוב וישר).  In Tosefta Shekalim 2:2 they report the protocol for collecting funds from the Temple storehouse. The officiant’s pockets were searched as they entered and exited—that way they could not claim if found with a gold coin in their pocket that they had brought it in with them. Not only is actual theft forbidden, but even the appearance of immorality is to be shunned. This, say the Sages, is what it means to do that which is “right and good.” It is a matter of public virtue—a society in which moral values are on public display is a society in which personal practice will rise to meet high expectations, rather than sink into the mire of excuses and evasions.

Rabbi Akiva is reported to have said that “the good” refers to the sight of heaven, whereas “the right” is in the sight of other people. Rabbi Ishmael is said to have disagreed, claiming that all that matters is the sight of God. Saul Lieberman explains Rabbi Ishmael as thinking ומה שישר בעיני שמים ממילא טוב גם בעיני בני אדם, “that which is good in the sight of heaven is automatically good in the eyes of humanity.” Perhaps—the literary record of this debate is rather jumbled. Midrash Sifre simply shortens Rabbi Ishmael’s statement, whereas the later collection Yalkut Shimoni turns it into an argument of word order—R’ Ishmael thinks one ought to do that which is “right” in the sight of heaven, and “good” in the sight of humanity. These details are perhaps too technical, but it is important to note that the rabbis added a social component to the determination of morality. How do you know if something is right and good in the eyes of heaven? Look it up in the books, consult a prophet if you can, but then also check in with those around you. Unless they are caught up in an evil spirit, they will have the sense to steer you right. That which is right in the eyes of heaven should eventually also find support in the sight of humanity. Our task is to activate the moral impulse in society and to oppose any backsliding towards injustice and violence.

In later rabbinic literature, the “right and the good” is understood as a strategy for legal interpretation. Bavli Bava Metzia 108a applies this verse to a commercial situation called בר מצרא. If I am selling a tract of property and two buyers want to purchase it, in theory I may sell to either one. But if one of the buyers already owns an adjacent field, and this purchase will allow them to consolidate their holdings, then it is “right and good” to sell it to the proximate purchaser. The medieval codes restate this law and expand upon it further. If a person goes “beyond the letter of the law” and returns lost property that they could have been excused for ignoring, that is walking in the path of “the right and the good.” (Rabbi Isserles objects, saying that a person cannot refuse to exercise an established exemption, but should compensate the owner separately if so inclined). To do the right and the good, then, is not merely to follow the letter of the law, but to go further, making our practice generous and sensitive to the needs of others.

In his Torah commentary, Ramban notes that the Torah could not possibly list every ethical (or unethical) behavior in society. Therefore, it provided numerous specific examples, and added our general language—do that which is right and good in the sight of God. Ramban claims that this instruction leads to a spirit of compromise and generosity, causing one to be known as a kind and perfect person. Rabbi Elliot Dorff uses this verse and Ramban’s commentary as the frontispiece of his book, To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics (JPS, 2002).

This past week in America has shown us that the curses of racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry remain virulent and dangerous. Who would have thought that the KKK and Neo-Nazis would be marching strong once again in our country, and that our highest officials would find it so difficult to condemn them with clarity and outrage? We are right to be horrified, and are called upon to object and to advocate for a restoration of decency and morality in our country.

Like all of you, I was stunned by the virulent and thuggish carnival of hate unleashed by “Unite the Right.” Seeing them march with their swastikas and Confederate flags, hearing their anti-Semitic and racist vitriol spew forth, and then absorbing the inevitable blow of injuries and death as Heather D. Heyer, of blessed memory, was killed by a member of this hate-drunk mob, was surreal and terrifying. Reports from the town’s Congregation Beth Israel are deeply disturbing—despite their pleas, no police were assigned to protect them, even as three menacing and heavily armed men in fatigues stood across from the entrance. I don’t understand why the Charlottesville and Virginia state police were not more forceful in quashing the violence, and I really can’t comprehend why these alt-right militias, or any people, are allowed to march with automatic weapons in American cities. Our hearts go out to the families of the two state troopers who died, H. Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, and to all who were injured in the melee.

All of this revulsion and disappointment is intensified by the bizarre and pernicious public statements of the President. I must admit that it is fascinating to watch him struggle, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, between the awareness that he ought to behave one way, to speak with decency and moral outrage, while repeatedly giving in to his darker impulse to lash out and reiterate the talking points of the so-called alt-right. Of course, violence and hatred are not acceptable from the left either, but what we are seeing is a large and rapidly growing swarm of right-wing bigotry that is violent and destabilizing the country. Some historians are already discussing the possibility of far greater levels of internecine violence in America. This is a time which calls for moral clarity and effective action, not obfuscation and false equivalences. President Trump continues to minimize the moral outrages of the alt-right, and even to give voice to their favorite issues, such as support for the proud display of Confederate symbols as part of American history. On issue after issue, we are suffering from a lack of moral leadership, responsibility and integrity from above. It is encouraging that the leaders of many sectors of the nation—military, business, government and religion—are all speaking out against this dangerous dereliction of duty. As a JTS representative on the RA Executive Council, I approved of the following statement, which was posted on Monday, August 14 (between the first and second statements by President Trump):

The Rabbinical Assembly is shocked and horrified by the violent demonstrations of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and their sympathizers in Charlottesville, Virginia this past Saturday which resulted directly in the deaths of one civilian and two state police officers and in many other serious injuries. We applaud the swift and effective actions of Mayor Mike Signer of Charlottesville and Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, as well as their appropriate condemnations of the bigotry, antisemitism and hatred that inspired the rally itself. Many leaders have taken the indispensable step of naming the dangerous philosophies and movements that united these demonstrators. These events have been rightly labeled as incidents of domestic terror by both Democrats and Republicans.
We call upon United States officials including President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to condemn neo-Nazi, white supremacist and alt-right movements by name. The repeated failure to do so by top U.S. officials has fueled their growth and poses an imminent threat to all Americans as Saturday’s violent rallies showed. History has demonstrated that where a country’s leaders fail to condemn these philosophies, violence and hatred can quickly and exponentially consume the fabric of civil society. Our leaders must act now. Let us continue to pray for and to work for the day when all shall “sit under his/her vine and fig tree and none shall make them afraid.”
Rabbi Philip Scheim, President, The Rabbinical Assembly
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, CEO, The Rabbinical Assembly
Margo Gold, President, USCJ
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO, USCJ

I’m afraid that the coming months and years will require us to act with greater courage and conviction, building coalitions to strengthen the moral foundations of our society and holding our leaders accountable to pursue justice and peace for all.

This coming week will be a time of celestial tidings. On Monday, the moon will darken the sun, even as the moon itself darkens before the onset of Elul on Tuesday and Wednesday. This darkness from above is ominous, but it is also temporary.  This is also the season of introspection, reconciliation and return to the better selves who we were meant to be. The light will prevail, and goodness will regain its rightful place, but only if we are willing to act with courage, conviction and kindness. Let us do that which is right and good in the eyes of God, opposing evil and seeking God with all our heart, so that we too may be worthy of divine blessing.

 

Sources

דברים פרק ו, טז-יח

(טז) לֹא תְנַסּוּ אֶת ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר נִסִּיתֶם בַּמַּסָּה: (יז) שָׁמוֹר תִּשְׁמְרוּן אֶת מִצְוֹת ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְעֵדֹתָיו וְחֻקָּיו אֲשֶׁר צִוָּךְ: (יח) וְעָשִׂיתָ הַיָּשָׁר וְהַטּוֹב בְּעֵינֵי ה’ לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ וּבָאתָ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע ה’ לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ:

דברים פרק יב, ח

(ח) לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנַחְנוּ עֹשִׂים פֹּה הַיּוֹם אִישׁ כָּל  הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו:

דברים פרק יב, כח

(כח) שְׁמֹר וְשָׁמַעְתָּ אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּךָּ לְמַעַן יִיטַב לְךָ וּלְבָנֶיךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ עַד עוֹלָם כִּי תַעֲשֶׂה הַטּוֹב וְהַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ:

דברים פרק כא, ט

(ט) וְאַתָּה תְּבַעֵר הַדָּם הַנָּקִי מִקִּרְבֶּךָ כִּי תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי ה’:

דברי הימים ב פרק יד, א-ג

(א) וַיַּעַשׂ אָסָא הַטּוֹב וְהַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי ה’ אֱלֹהָיו: (ב) וַיָּסַר אֶת מִזְבְּחוֹת הַנֵּכָר וְהַבָּמוֹת וַיְשַׁבֵּר אֶת הַמַּצֵּבוֹת וַיְגַדַּע אֶת הָאֲשֵׁרִים: (ג) וַיֹּאמֶר לִיהוּדָה לִדְרוֹשׁ אֶת ה’ אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיהֶם וְלַעֲשׂוֹת הַתּוֹרָה וְהַמִּצְוָה:

דברי הימים ב פרק לא, כ-כא

(כ) וַיַּעַשׂ כָּזֹאת יְחִזְקִיָּהוּ בְּכָל יְהוּדָה וַיַּעַשׂ הַטּוֹב וְהַיָּשָׁר וְהָאֱמֶת לִפְנֵי ה’ אֱלֹהָיו: (כא) וּבְכָל מַעֲשֶׂה אֲשֶׁר הֵחֵל בַּעֲבוֹדַת בֵּית הָאֱלֹהִים וּבַתּוֹרָה וּבַמִּצְוָה לִדְרֹשׁ לֵאלֹהָיו בְּכָל לְבָבוֹ עָשָׂה וְהִצְלִיחַ:

תוספתא מסכת שקלים (ליברמן) פרק ב

נכנס לתרום את הלשכה היו מפשפשין בו בכניסה וביציאה ומדברין עמו משעה שנכנס עד שעה שיצא לקיים [מה] שנ’ והייתם נקיים מה’ ומישראל ואו’ ועשית הישר והטוב בעיני ה’ הטוב בעיני שמים והישר בעיני אדם דברי ר’ עקיב’ ר’ ישמעאל אומ’ אף הישר בעיני שמים ואומ’ ומצא חן ושכל טוב בעיני אלים ואדם הכריעו חכמים לקיים דברי ר’ ישמעאל שנ’ כי תעשה הישר בעיני ה’ ואין כאן טוב ואומ’ אל אלים ה’ הוא יודע וישראל הוא ידע

ספרי דברים פרשת ראה פיסקא עט

כי תעשה הטוב והישר, הטוב בעיני שמים והישר בעיני אדם דברי רבי עקיבה וכן הוא אומר +משלי ג ד+ ומצא חן ושכל טוב בעיני אלהים ואדם. רבי ישמעאל אומר הישר בעיני שמים

ילקוט שמעוני תורה פרשת ראה רמז תתפד

כי תעשה הטוב והישר, הטוב בעיני שמים והישר בעיני אדם דברי רבי עקיבא, רבי ישמעאל אומר הישר בעיני שמים והטוב בעיני אדם, וכן הוא אומר ומצא חן ושכל טוב בעיני אלהים ואדם:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא מציעא דף קח עמוד א

אמר שמואל: האי מאן דאחזיק ברקתא דנהרא – חציפא הוי, סלוקי לא מסלקינן ליה. והאידנא דקא כתבי פרסאי קני לך עד מלי צוארי סוסיא מיא – סלוקי נמי מסלקינן ליה. אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: האי מאן דאחזיק ביני אחי וביני שותפי – חציפא הוי, סלוקי – לא מסלקינן ליה. ורב נחמן אמר: נמי מסלקינן, ואי משום דינא דבר מצרא – לא מסלקינן ליה. נהרדעי אמרי: אפילו משום דינא דבר מצרא מסלקינן ליה, משום שנאמר ועשית הישר והטוב בעיני ה’.

טור חושן משפט הלכות מצרנות סימן קעה

לו דינא דבר מצרא תקנת חכמים הוא משום ועשית הטוב והישר הואיל שהוא רוצה למכור טוב וישר הוא שיקננה המצרן יותר מאדם אחר הרחוק לפיכך אם יש שום הפסד למוכר לא תקנו שלא תקנו למצרן דבר שהוא הפסד למוכר: 

רמב”ם הלכות גזלה ואבדה פרק יא הלכה יז

ההולך בדרך הטוב והישר ועושה לפנים משורת הדין מחזיר את האבדה בכל מקום ואף על פי שאינה לפי כבודו.

שולחן ערוך חושן משפט הלכות אבידה ומציאה סימן רסג

ההולך בדרך הטוב והישר ועושה לפנים משורת הדין, מחזיר את האבידה בכל מקום ואף על פי שאינה לפי כבודו. הגה: ג] ויש חולקין {ה} ואוסרין להחזיר, הואיל ואינו לפי כבודו, אלא אם רוצה ליכנס לפנים מן השורה {ו} ישלם מכיסו (טור בשם הרא”ש סי’ רע”ב).

רמב”ן דברים פרק ו פסוק יח

(יח) ועשית הישר והטוב בעיני ה’ – על דרך הפשט יאמר תשמרו מצות השם ועדותיו וחקותיו ותכוין בעשייתן לעשות הטוב והישר בעיניו בלבד. ולמען ייטב לך – הבטחה, יאמר כי בעשותך הטוב בעיניו ייטב לך, כי השם מטיב לטובים ולישרים בלבותם. ולרבותינו בזה מדרש יפה, אמרו זו פשרה ולפנים משורת הדין. והכוונה בזה, כי מתחלה אמר שתשמור חקותיו ועדותיו אשר צוך, ועתה יאמר גם באשר לא צוך תן דעתך לעשות הטוב והישר בעיניו, כי הוא אוהב הטוב והישר:

וזה ענין גדול, לפי שאי אפשר להזכיר בתורה כל הנהגות האדם עם שכניו ורעיו וכל משאו ומתנו ותקוני הישוב והמדינות כלם, אבל אחרי שהזכיר מהם הרבה, כגון לא תלך רכיל (ויקרא יט טז), לא תקום ולא תטור (שם פסוק יח), ולא תעמוד על דם רעך (שם פסוק טז), לא תקלל חרש (שם פסוק יד), מפני שיבה תקום (שם פסוק לב), וכיוצא בהן, חזר לומר בדרך כלל שיעשה הטוב והישר בכל דבר, עד שיכנס בזה הפשרה ולפנים משורת הדין, וכגון מה שהזכירו בדינא דבר מצרא (ב”מ קח א), ואפילו מה שאמרו (יומא פו א) פרקו נאה ודבורו בנחת עם הבריות, עד שיקרא בכל ענין תם וישר:

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