Right and Good: Reflections on Parashat Va’etchanan
by Daniella Elyashar, Incoming Assistant Director
In Parashat Va’etchanan, Moses explicitly lists the mitzvot, laws and statutes – מצוות חוקים ומשפטים – that Am Israel (Israelite nation) needs to know before entering the land of Israel. It is an impressively long list.
While reading this parashah, it is hard to miss these words – mitzvoth, chukim, umishpatim – because they are repeated 15 times, implying that the detailed information in this parashah includes all the things that Am Yisrael must listen to and obey. In addition to this repetition and emphasis of these rules, there are two more p’sukim (verses) that limit the interpretation of the explicit rules stated:
“You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I enjoin upon you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2)
And then later, “Be careful, then, to do as the LORD your God has commanded you. Do not turn aside to the right or to the left.” (5:2)
After a detailed explanation of what the Jewish people ought to know, we could have walked away from this parashah thinking these are the rules, they are all laid out, we are not allowed to add or detract from them. Easy!
But then in the middle of the parashah, we read this:
“Do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, that it may go well with you and that you may be able to possess the good land that the LORD your God promised on oath to your fathers.” (6:18)
The previous verses refer to explicit and clear rules. As mentioned above, the parashah also explicitly says we must not add or detract from the laws mentioned. But what does Moses – or God – mean when they use the ambiguous phrase “right and good”? What can it possibly mean to be “right and good,” that is not already included within the previous verses?
Rashi and Ramban have some interesting thoughts. Rashi says “The right and the good” refers to “compromise and action within or beyond the letter of the law (lifnim mi-shurat ha-din).” In other words, going the extra mile and doing more than what is commanded of us, according to Rashi, is what the Torah means by “the right and the good.”
Ramban adds to this idea and says:
“Even regarding what God did not command, pay attention to do what is good and right in God’s eyes, because God loves goodness and righteousness. And it is important because it is impossible to mention in the Torah (what should be) everyone’s conduct.”
Ramban notes that there are aspects of Jewish morality that can’t necessarily be explained or conveyed by the simplistic wording of laws.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the classic Rabbinic commentators understand that it is impossible to mention all the aspects of our day to day interactions, relationships, troubles, thoughts and ideas in the Torah. Even though Moses mentions many of those rules, and keeps reminding us that those are the specific chukim umishpatim, he also finds it important to state that in all matters one should do what is good and right, including even compromise and going beyond the strict requirement of the law.
Laws are about principles that people write and apply in different places and times. They are often a reflection of needs of a certain society or culture and they often change accordingly. The delicate idea of “right and good,” according to this parashah, goes beyond the wordings of the laws. We learn that compromise is just as important, and going the extra mile is what will make us good and righteous.
Sensitivity, humility, generosity, thoughtfulness, sense of community and authenticity are all examples of mannerisms that are hard to reduce to rules of conduct.
During times like these when rules require our distance and laws command us to stay apart, we must think about the ways in which we can be attentive to what people around us need beyond just the plain rules. How can we be more sensitive, caring, generous and thoughtful in times like these? How can we move beyond just listening to social distance rules and think about innovative ways to feel a sense of community?
I hope that in times like these we can all push each other to become better at thinking out of the box and practicing being ישר וטוב, “right and good.”