By: Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson,
Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
Haftarah Reading:Isaiah 40:1-26
When you think of the core teachings of Judaism, certain essentials quickly come to mind -- the liberation from Egyptian slavery, the 'Shema' declaring the uniqueness of God, the Ten Commandments, affirming a moral and sacred order to human existence, and the ensuing list of 'mitzvot' and 'halachah' (Jewish law), which implements the love relationship between God and the Jewish People.
All of these insights are found in one remarkable 'Parshah,' the one we read this week. Here, in stirring eloquence, our greatest prophet and teacher reminds us that the central task of the Jew is to live in accordance with the teachings of God -- to conduct ourselves and our dealings with others in such a way that we cultivate the wisdom, compassion and justice possible for all human societies.
At the very core of Moses' speech, then, is the conviction that doing God's will, obeying the 'mitzvot,' are the sure path toward establishing a society of justice, of making possible a pervasive experience of the sacred and of cultivating the fullest possible growth of individuals within the group.
'Halachah' is our key -- an authoritative network of sacred deeds which directs our steps at every turn, telling us what and how to eat, when and how to work and why and how to apply God's healing vision to human life in general.
That blanket assumption characterized Judaism from its inception, and characterizes all traditional forms of Judaism, even today. Particularly shocking, then, is one seemingly-extraneous (although beautiful) verse in Moses' elegant and impassioned plea.
After urging his followers to follow all of the 'mitzvot,' he tells them to "do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord." If God's will is expressed in 'halachah,' if following the Commandments is enough, then why do we need to be told to do what is right and good? And if we need to be told what is right and good, then why bother with 'halachah?'
Ours is not the first generation to wrestle with the difficulty of knowing what, exactly, God wants from us. From the age of the prophets into our own, Jews have struggled to ascertain the contours and parameters of righteousness. Seen in that light, the command to "do what is right and good" may provide the steering wheel to point us along the road.
Rashi (11th Century France) states that this verse "implies a compromise, going beyond the letter of the law." In other words, there will be times when strict application of the law as it is formulated will no longer embody what is right or good. In such moments, we are to have the courage -- as obedient servants of God -- to forge a compromise that may go beyond the current formulation of the tradition. The tradition itself provides for its own dynamic growth; 'halachah' is a process, not an outcome. Ramban (13th Century Spain) is even more explicit.
Even in regard to those things where no specific command applies . . . it is impossible to record every detail of human behavior. God included a general injunction to do what is good and right in every matter, accepting where necessary even a compromise in a legal dispute.
What both commentators are expressing is the recognition that there are two ways to destroy a legal tradition -- to abandon its authority and relevance, on the one hand, or to reduce it to its rulings rather than its method, on the other. Both of these deviations can destroy the living tree that is Judaism -- by undermining its jurisdiction or by denying its ability to respond to new insights and new phenomena.
The Talmud records the insight of Rabbi Yochanan that Jerusalem was destroyed only because they acted in accordance with the letter of the Torah and did not go beyond it. In our age, as in times past, there are temptations to abandon the process initiated in the Torah -- through excessive permissiveness or through excessive rigidity.
The command to do what is right and good is our summons to live our lives according to a 'halachah' that is dynamic, one whose purpose is compassionate and whose details are just. God's love and sovereignty, Jewish vitality and authenticity, individual growth and spirituality, all intersect at one place -- precisely in the continued flowering of a dynamic 'halachah,' one which establishes the right and the good.