This week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, contains some of the “greatest hits” of our tradition with its inclusion of the shema and the ten commandments. In this continuation of Moses’ address to the people, he reminds them of the essential principles of Judaism: our grounding in the Exodus from Egypt, adherence to the commandments and the centrality of God and God’s unity. Moses exhorts the people to follow the rules of God, the mitzvot, in order to create a just and compassionate society. But then comes a curious phrase where Moses says: “Remember to do what is right and good in the sight of God.”
Rabbi Artson challenges: if we are to merely follow the mitzvot and the halacha, why add a command to do what is right and good? Surely that is redundant. He then brings examples from the tradition to show that the phrase exists to help us interpret and live the rules of God. Often when we have the chance to implement laws there is more than one way of understanding and applying the rule. This overarching principle reminds us that, in its application, the halacha is to help guide us to do what is right and good. And sometimes this means that we need to depart from the strict letter of the law in order to bring in an element of compassion, goodness or heart.
Rashi says that the verse “implies compromise, going beyond the letter of the law”. The Ramban says “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 right and good in every matter, accepting where necessary even a compromise in a legal dispute.” (Bedside Torah by Rabbi Artson, pg. 294)
So flexibility when it comes to the application of the law is crucial to maintaining its relevance, but also in ensuring that we continue to apply the principles of Judaism with the effect upon people at the heart of all that we do. Rabbi Yochanan is recorded in the Talmud as saying that the Temple was destroyed because our ancestors acted only to the letter of the law and did not go beyond it. (Bedside Torah by Rabbi Artson, pg. 294)
Sometimes we can become so entangled in the minutiae of a situation that we don’t see the broader implications of our decisions. This week’s parashah reminds us to always have compassion, kindness and goodness at the heart of our application of Jewish principles so that we can bring the vision of our world as a place filled with love, generosity, peace and blessing, to fruition through our deeds and the work of our hands.
May we always act to do what is right and good so that we can be a blessing.