“A Small Verse that Started a Mighty Revolution”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Some weekly Torah portions are considered particularly significant by virtue of the large number of mitzvot that are found in them. Among the most “significant” parashiot and the numbers of mitzvot they contain are: Ki Teitzei-74, Kedoshim-71, Re’eh-65, and Emor-63. This week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, has only a relatively small number of mitzvot–12, eight positive and four negative.

Despite the small number of commandments that are found in this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan is still considered a most significant parasha by virtue of the fact that Va’etchanan contains some of the most important mitzvot of the Torah: the Ten Commandments, the portion of the Shema that includes the statement about loving G-d, the pronouncement of the unity of G-d, and the Divine commandment to study Torah.

Parashat Va’etchanan also includes well-known exhortations concerning the observance of mitzvot. Deuteronomy 4:1 opens with the words: “And now O’ Israel listen to the decrees and to the ordinances that I [G-d] teach you to perform so that you may live, and you will come and possess the land that the Lord G-d of your forefathers gives you.” Similarly, Deuteronomy 5:29 reads: “You shall be careful to act as the Lord, your G-d, commanded you.”

The significance of parashat Va’etchanan is enhanced even further because of a simple but revolutionary moral concept that is introduced in the parasha, one that goes beyond the literal letter of the law. The rabbis are perplexed by the apparent extraneous verse in Deuteronomy 6:18: “V’ah’see’tah ha’yah’shar v’ha’tov b’ay’nay Hashem,” and you shall do what is fair and good in the eyes of G-d. After all, is it not expected that those who follow all the mitzvot of the Torah, both positive and negative, and their many derivatives from the Written and Oral Codes, would inevitably do what is fair and good?

To this question, the Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) responds with a resounding and emphatic “No!” The Ramban explains that the Torah could hardly be expected to provide a detailed list of all the circumstances that might test a person’s generosity of spirit. Therefore, the Torah instead pronounces a fundamental moral principle: Each person should strive toward fairness and goodness in the eyes of G-d and human beings.

The Ramban explains at length:

At first the Al-mighty requires of the people to observe His statutes, His laws, and His testimony, which He explicitly commanded. By introducing the concept of doing what is fair and good, the Al-mighty bids the human being to not only do what He commanded explicitly, but also that which is not explicitly commanded: Focus on doing good and behaving fairly in G-d’s eyes, because He loves fairness and goodness.

This is a most important principle, as it is impossible for the Torah to mention all the possible behaviors of a human being with his friends and neighbors and all his business interactions, whether they be local or distant. Instead, the Torah mentions a select few. For instance: “You shall not go around as a talebearer,” (Leviticus 19:16); “You shall not be vengeful and not bear a grudge,” (Leviticus 19:18); “Thou shall not stand by as the blood of your brother is spilled,” (Leviticus 19:16); “Thou shall not curse the deaf,” (Leviticus 19:14); “Rise before the hoary head,” (Leviticus 19:32), etc., etc. Now that it has presented this representative list, the Torah then states that each person should do what is fair and good, until this virtuous behavior becomes part of the person’s nature, until he/she fully understands the principle of compromise and going beyond the letter of the law, until he/she is known as a person who is pure and honest.

The principle of doing fair and good cannot be overemphasized. It represents a profound advance in the sphere of morality and ethics. While every legal system reflects both the “letter” and the “spirit” of the law, the Torah boldly declares that, despite the fact that in justice only the letter of the law is to prevail, every human being should nevertheless be governed by the ultimate desire to do what is fair and what is good. Consequently, a judge is not permitted to favor either a wealthy or a poor person in judgment, yet the Torah clearly exhorts each Jew to go beyond the letter of the law and do what is fair and what is good. That is why a person who has total faith in G-d will not hesitate to deal generously with his opponents, for he knows that G-d will see to it that he gets what he is entitled to, one way or another (see commentary in ArtScroll Chumash, Deuteronomy 6:18).

Furthermore, the fact that the Torah does not simply say: “Do what is fair in the eyes of G-d,” but also “what is good,” underscores the Torah’s efforts to raise the Jew’s level of moral sensitivity to a significantly higher level. It’s simply not enough to do that which is right, to act according to the strict letter of the law, for such actions may result in hardship and harshness. The truly pious person avoids taking advantage of the strict letter of the law, choosing instead to act in a manner that is known in rabbinic literature as “lif’nim me’shoo’rat ha’din,” going beyond the letter of the law.

Rabbi Yochanan states in tractate Baba Metzia 30b that Jerusalem was destroyed only because they [the rabbis] judged according to strict biblical law and did not go beyond the requirements of the law. By adhering too closely to din–strict justice, the courts of Jerusalem wound up neglecting the principles of yosher–fairness and equity.

The Talmud provides some examples of exalted behavior that is expected of a righteous nation.

A rabbi once assured a poor woman that a coin that she showed him was real. The next day the woman returned to the rabbi complaining that the coin was not accepted in the marketplace because it was counterfeit. The rabbi thereupon took the false coin from her and gave her a good one in exchange. By the strict letter of the law, the rabbi was not required to replace the coin. His generous actions went beyond the letter of the law, doing that which was fair and good in the eyes of G-d.

Rabba, the son of Bar Chana, retained the services of a number of porters to transport some jugs of wine. As a result of their negligence, they dropped the load and all the wine was lost. In compensation for his losses, Rabba seized their garments.

The porters appealed to Rav who ordered that the porters’ garments be returned, citing the scriptural verse (Proverbs 2:20): “L’mahn tay’laych b’derech tov’im,” So you shall go in the paths of the good. Still unhappy, the porters pleaded further: We are poor men, who have labored a full day, exhausted ourselves, and still we have nothing. Rav determined that their wages must be paid.

Rabba protested Rav’s decision asserting that his actions to withhold the wages had been legal. Rav replied that indeed Rabba’s action were legal, but, said Rav, the verse concludes, “V’oar’choat tzaddikim tish’mor,” and the ways of the righteous you shall guard–you must go beyond the letter of the law.

The truth is that, according to the strict letter of the law, Rabba the son of Bar Chana could have demanded that his rights be upheld. However, as a sensitive and pious person, he agreed with Rav that it was proper for him to act beyond the letter of the law.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) suggests that people involved in quarrels should strive to achieve p’shara–compromise by mutual agreement, when each of the litigants forgoes something which he believes he is entitled to under the strict letter of the law. By prior agreement, the disputants refrain from insisting on the strict law so that the outcome may be determined by friendship. This amicable solution is alluded to in a verse in Zachariah 8:16: “Execute the judgment of truth and peace,” and is a fulfillment of the verse, “V’ah’see’tah ha’yah’shar v’ha’tov,” and you shall do what is fair and good.

May you be blessed.

(The observance of the fast of Tisha b’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Wednesday night, August 2nd and continues through Thursday night, August 3rd, 2006. Have a meaningful fast.)