Va’etchanan: Law and its Limits

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan

Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you . . . .(Deuteronomy/ D’varim 6:18)

Hello again, it’s a beautiful afternoon in the Hudson Valley and I’m delighted to find a few minutes to offer a Torah thought. I am in the middle of transitions and new challenges and can’t promise a commentary every week, but things should settle down after the Jewish holidays in the fall. Till then, well, I’ll do my best.

Now, onto this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, which continues Moshe’s review of the history of the Israelites since the Exodus some 40 years earlier, for the explicit purpose of reminding them of their obligation to the One Who redeemed them from slavery. To that end, Moshe also reviews the events at Sinai, and recapitulates the Ten Things That Were Said (e.g., aseret ha’dibrot, ten utterances, AKA ten commandments.)

Yet in the middle of all this exhortation to covenantal loyalty comes a verse which reminds them that the law is not the end, but the beginning of a moral life. “Do what is right and good,” from the verse quoted above, is understood to be a basic principle of Judaism: it’s not enough to obey the letter of a legall code or set of spiritual disciplines, but one must also fulfill the spirit of the law, which often requires going beyond a standard of strict adherence to formal standards.

A famous example of this comes from the Talmud [Bava Metzia 83a], wherein workers who broke a barrel of wine were hauled before the judge in order to hold them liable for the damage. Their shirts had been taken as collateral, but the judge, the sage known as Rav, ordered not only their shirts returned but their wages paid. Rav made explicit that his standard was not only the law that workers are liable for damage but the principle that we treat human beings with dignity and relieve their suffering, even if that requires us to go beyond the law. Yes, it would have been legal to take the worker’s shirts, but it would not have been right, nor humane, nor compassionate, nor consonant with larger Jewish ideals of justice and generosity.

Of course, one problem with “do what is right and good” is that it’s a lot easier to know if our actions comply with a specific law than it is to know if our actions are consonant with larger and more abstract moral principles. To which I say: nu? since when is it supposed to be easy to be a mensch? No, it’s not easy to stretch ourselves to go beyond the law (any law, be it Jewish, American, international); it requires active, imaginative empathy for others, humility about our own righteousness, and great generosity. None of those things are easy to discern or to do, but if we are to live in a world balanced with hesed, rather than a world limited to strict justice, it’s the only way.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

 

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