Bein Adam Le-chavero: Ethics of Interpersonal Conduct
Shiur #18: The Right and the Good
In last week’s lesson we saw that though the Torah
dictates a distinct system of law, din, in some circumstances, Judaism
suggests and even requires one to act lifnim mi-shurat ha-din, beyond the
letter of the law. The one question
we have not addressed yet is how we can understand a set of laws that in some
circumstances are meant to be overridden: how can it be that the Torah’s laws
are abrogated to uphold the spirit of the law?
Where does this unique idea come from?
The basis of the Torah’s provision that one should
study its legal dictates and apply them beyond their minimalist requirements may
be found in an explicit verse.
Moshe Rabbeinu prefaces his major speech in
Devarim with a consistent message, emphasizing the need to follow the
commandments and the will of God and to put them into practice in one’s daily
life. There we find a verse which seems
to be somewhat repetitious:
And do the right (yashar) and the good (tov)
in God’s eyes, so that it will be good for you, and you will come and inherit
the good land that God swore to give to your fathers.
How important is this verse?
R. Elazar (Avoda Zara 25a)
explains that Devarim is referred to as “sefer ha-yashar,” “the
book of the right,” for the simple reason that it contains this verse. The implication of this Talmudic
statement is that this phrase is so significant that it essentially underscores
the concluding book of the Torah.
But why is this so?
Rav Barukh Epstein (Torah Temima 6:74) asks
this question and explains that the behavior described in this verse is a
guiding principle of the whole Torah:
Why is this verse elevated above all others, so much
so that it is responsible for the title of the entire book? One may understand this based on what
is written in Shabbat (31a), that “You shall love your fellow as
yourself” (Vayikra 19:18) is the essence of the entire Torah — just as
one wishes only to do yashar and tov for himself, so too one who
forgoes his own needs in order to benefit another is establishing the foundation
of the entire Torah. Therefore, the
entire Torah is predicated on this teaching.
While the significance of this particular verse is
highlighted by the Talmudic statement cited above, the general idea of striving
to live a life which is just in God’s eyes is repeated numerous times in the
Purity of Action
It is noteworthy that the verse above does not
merely demand that one perform right and good actions; one must perform “the
right and the good in God’s eyes.”
This addition might be viewed as innocuous if not for the fact that the
Torah seems to juxtapose this terminology with verses which describe how one
should not act in ways that are only “yashar in his eyes” (see Devarim
12:5). In a number of places, the
Torah seems to distinguish between individuals who do what is yashar in
their own eyes, thereby bringing upon themselves trouble, and those who are
inspired to perform that which is both tov and yashar in God’s
In fact, Shofetim 17:6 introduces the
terrible tragedies of the pre-monarchic era of the Jewish people with the
In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone
would do the right in his eyes.
Thus, the Torah is calling for actions which are
consonant with God’s definition of yashar, as opposed to man’s. It is clear that one should strive to
be upright in God’s eyes, performing that which God deems decent and proper. For this reason, throughout Neviim
and Ketuvim, the repeated question is whether people are living according
to what is yashar in their own eyes or in God’s eyes. But what determines what is right and
good in God’s eyes?
Before delving into that question, we should note
that a number of commentators note the significance of the repeated mention of
the phrase “in God’s eyes.”
The Alshikh points out that the Torah’s formulation
indicates that one’s rightness and goodness should not only be expressed through
one’s external behavior, but in his heart as well — which is “in God’s eyes,”
for He sees what is in one’s heart.
One’s attributes of chasidut should not be
superficial, in place for all others to see, without reaching one’s heart. One should do “the right and the good
in God’s eyes,” for God sees even when others are not around.
Goodness is valid only if one truly
achieves it in God’s eyes. (Alshikh,
To understand the parameters and significance of “the right and the good
in God’s eyes,” we must identify exactly what defines ha-yashar and
ha-tov. What new exhortation can
be included in this verse that is missing from the other sources? What is the specific contribution of
this verse that cannot be deduced from any other commandment in the Torah?
Rashi (ad loc.) already tells us that this
verse teaches one to go above and beyond explicit responsibility:
“The right and the good” –this implies a compromise
beyond the letter of the law.
In essence, Rashi seems to view it as a general
injunction related to what we discussed in last week’s lesson. Going above and beyond the
minimalistic legal requirements is advised if not mandated by the Torah. This is “the right and the good” in
However, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 108) also
gives this clause a specific meaning, regarding what is known as “the rule of
the neighbor.” This law gives
precedence to a neighbor when a landowner sells his property. The Talmud even states that if
someone else purchases the property before the neighbor has a chance to buy it,
then the courts can undo the sale and allow the neighbor to buy it. Why is this so? “Because,” the Talmud
explains, “it says: ‘And do the right and the good in God’s eyes.’”
Furthermore, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 16b)
applies this verse to another law.
The Rambam codifies it in Hilkhot Malveh Ve-loveh 22:16:
When the court evaluates and expropriates a property
for a creditor — whether from property in the creditor's possession or property
that was in the possession of a purchaser — and afterwards, the borrower, the
person from whom the property was expropriated, or their heirs, acquires
financial resources and pays the creditor his money, the creditor is removed
from that landed property. For property that was evaluated and expropriated
should always be returned to its owners, as mandated by the charge: "And do the
right and the good."
The Rambam concludes Hilkhot Shekheinim
(Laws of Neighbors, 12:5) by explaining the first law:
Even when a person sells property which he owns to
another person, his colleague, the owner of the property neighboring his, has
the right to pay the purchase price to the buy and remove him from his purchase.
The purchaser who comes from afar is considered as the agent of the neighbor.
This applies whether the original owner's agent conducted the sale, or whether
the property was sold by the court, the privilege of a neighbor is granted. Even
if the purchaser was a Torah scholar, a
non-immediate neighbor and a relative of the seller, while the neighbor was an
unlearned learned person with no family connections to the seller, the neighbor
receives priority and may remove the purchaser. This practice stems from the
charge: “And do the right and the good." Our Sages said: "Since the sale is
fundamentally the same, it is right and good that the property should be
acquired by the neighbor, instead of the person living further away."
The Principle of the Torah
However, a number of commentators see in these
verses not only a general call to be the right and the good, but a description
of the overall message that the mitzvot of the Torah seek to inculcate in
the Jew. The essential elements of
the Torah, the blueprint of creation, enable us to take our natural tendencies
and elevate them. God, the creator
of mankind in His image, chooses a nation to receive the Torah as the guidebook
for ethical behavior. The Ramban, in
his commentary to this verse, explains this clearly:
Our rabbis expound this
verse beautifully. They have said that this refers to compromise and going
beyond the letter of the law. The intent of this is as follows: at first, it
states that one is to keep His decrees and His testimonies which He commanded;
now, it states that even where He has not commanded anything, one must give
thought, as well, to do what is good and right in His eyes, for He loves the
good and the right.
Now, this is a great
principle, for it is impossible to mention in the Torah all aspects of man's
conduct with his neighbors and friends, and all his various transactions, and
the ordinances of all societies and countries. But since it mentions many of
them – such as, "You shall not go up and down as a talebearer" (Vayikra
19:16); "You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge" (ibid. v. 18); "Neither shall you
stand idly by the blood of your neighbor" (ibid. v. 16); "You shall not curse the deaf" (ibid. v. 15); "You shall rise up
before the hoary head" (ibid. v. 32)
and the like – it comes back to state in a general way that, in all matters, one
should do what is good and right, including even compromise and going beyond the
requirements of the law.
Other examples are “the
rule of the neighbor” and their statement that one's youthful reputation should
be unblemished and one's conversation with people pleasant (Yoma 86a).
This must be true in every form of activity, until one is worthy of being called
"good and right."
The Ramban’s formulation here demonstrates his understanding that the
Torah guides us not only in action, but in spirit. This conviction of the Ramban is
expressed elsewhere in his commentary as well.
Most famous, is his commentary to Vayikra 19:2, “You shall be holy because I, Lord your God, am
holy.” The Ramban explains that the implications of the verse are that even
one who fulfills all the verses of the Torah is liable to be short of holiness. One who seeks to live by the letter
of the law and find legal loopholes will actually become a fool (naval)
by authorization of the Torah.
A person can keep the
letter of the Torah and yet violate its spirit.
The Torah does not detail every event and situation that could possibly
arise, not out of a lack of ability, but because its goal is to allow the
commandments to serve as the guidebook for what God really wants. Putting the two comments of the
Ramban together, it becomes apparent that within one’s relationship with God,
the Torah commands one to view the big picture, to be holy. The commandment to be holy is between
man and God, while doing the right and the good is to inject the spirit of the
law into the actions between man and man.
Rav Simcha Zissel Broide, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Chevron,
explains the words of the Ramban.
“And do the right and the
good” is not a specific mitzva but a general mitzva: to delve deeply into the
understanding of mitzvot and the
reasons behind them; to comprehend and contemplate and appreciate, through the
mitzvot that we are commanded to
perform, also those obligations that are not explicit. We must develop an understanding of
what is really God’s desire from us, and what is good and right in His eyes.
(Sam Derekh, Ha-yashar ve-hatov,
The Maggid Mishneh (Hilkhot
Shekheinim 14:5) explains the parameters of this mitzva along the lines of
Similarly, regarding the
verse, "And do the right and the good," this means that a person should conduct
himself with other people in a good and right manner. It would have been
unbefitting to command the particulars, for while the Torah's mitzvot
apply at all times and in every hour and in all circumstances, so a person must
perforce perform them, man's traits and conduct vary in accordance with the hour
and the personalities involved. The Sages, of blessed memory, recorded a few
helpful particulars which fall under these general rules, some of which they
made the equivalent of absolute din, while other apply ab initio
and by the way of chasidut. All,
however, were ordained by the Sages.
The fact that proper
conduct varies according to the circumstances and according to the individuals
involved in a particular case demonstrates the importance of applying the
principles of the Torah to the situations at hand.
Only carefully studying the laws and
understanding that the overriding principle of ethical conduct is doing “the
right and the good” can enable us to translate the Torah’s message of ethical
behavior into practice.
Rav Yeshayahu Shapiro, known as the Admor
He-chalutz (d. 1942) expresses eloquently the overriding principles which
stem from the obligation to “be holy” and to do “the right and the good.”
The injunction “You shall be holy” implies that the
letter of the law must not be strictly adhered to; rather, as the Ramban phrases
it, “One should follow the intention of the Torah.” Whoever wishes to achieve a perfect
observance of the Torah cannot be satisfied with adhering to its explicit
rulings. He must penetrate deeper in
order to arrive at the ultimate aim of these rulings. He must not only think of that which
is good and right in his own eyes but that which is “the right and the good in
God’s eyes.” It would seem that the
latter injunction added by the Torah to its list of rulings is superfluous since
all the divine precepts are designed to show mankind the correct way of living. However, there are many things which
are permitted by the letter of the law and are only forbidden from because of
the requirement to “[d]o the right and good in God’s eyes.” Regarding the
seizing of property for a debt, our Rabbis stated that the law does not demand
the return of such property, but it is to be returned in accordance with the
injunction of “Do the right…” This
special injunction demonstrates that Judaism is not satisfied with limiting
active evildoing; it aspires to eradicate potential evil from the soul of man. (Quoted by Nechama Leibowitz,
Balancing the Law and its Spirit
The question which remains is the following: to what
degree does the spirit of the law prevail?
At what point is one to glean from the Torah that one must go beyond the
letter of the law and provide more?
Secondly, can one violate a prohibition forbidden by the letter of the law if
doing so will allow one to uphold the spirit of the law?
Rav S. R. Hirsch begins his commentary on this verse
by explaining the difference between yashar and tov:
yashar is that which fits with one’s
essence; tov is that which is in line
with God’s purpose in creating the world.
He goes on to declare that this verse is the guiding principle for our
interpersonal behavior, the Torah’s announcement that it is insufficient to
fulfill the dictates of justice and the requirements incumbent on man; we must
live on the principles of seeking the
yashar and the tov derived from
the Torah. Included within this is
the willingness to give up on that which is rightfully ours when it is much
smaller than the benefit to others.
Our conduct is to be guided by the standard of “the
right and the good in God’s eyes.”
Our Sages interpret this statement as a principle that explicates the Torah’s
requirements regarding our social behavior.
It is not sufficient to fulfill the requirements of justice and duty
explicitly set forth in the Torah; rather, we are to conduct ourselves according
to the general idea of “the right and the good,” as derived from the Torah’s
Thus far, Rav Hirsch merely eloquently expresses the
guidelines endorsed by other commentators as well. However, he continues to provide
practical expressions of this principle.
This principle teaches us that we are to forgo a
right to which we are legally entitled to if the advantage we would gain from
claiming that right is relatively small compared to the advantage the other
party would gain if we were to waive our claim.
Rav Hirsch goes on to describe that this is the
common denominator of the various laws learnt from this verse. For instance, the right of a neighbor
to have first dibs on buying a field is based on the idea that the field
provides more benefit for him than for any other purchaser. If he were to acquire it, then he
would be enlarging his field, and he would save on expenses and the like. It is “tov” to allow him to gain more,
whereas the right of anyone else to buy the property pales in comparison to the
gain he will achieve by purchasing it.
Rav Hirsch continues by providing specific meanings
for the terms “tov” and “yashar”.
Perhaps “Do the right and the good” can be
interpreted as follows: the tov adds something to the yashar and
modifies its performance. In doing
so, the yashar takes into consideration the higher tov. The yashar is
what one is entitled to by right, free from wrongdoing. The
tov is any positive purpose the
advancement of which is in accord with God’s will. This then is the tenet that is stated
here. Even if you are legally
entitled to something, forgo it for the sake of a higher, positive, and good
purpose. Forgo your undisputed right
out of consideration of another person’s welfare.
In cases of compromise, the litigant sacrifices some of his legal rights
for the sake of peace. The
tov that modifies the performance of
the yashar is, in the former cases, brotherly love, and in the latter
case, love of peace.
12:28, the Torah states the same message, but in the opposite order:
Listen with care to all these words that I command
you, so that it will be good for you and for your children after you forever,
for you will do the good and the right in Lord your God’s eyes.
Why is there a
need for another verse? What is the
significance of the difference in order?
Rav Hirsch concludes his commentary to 6:18 by explaining.
Below, the wording is reversed.
Accordingly, there the yashar
modifies the performance of the tov:
do good only in the right way. The
end shall not justify the means; do not attempt to do good by crooked means.
Essentially, the second verse teaches us the
following lesson: it is not enough to make sure that all of one’s yashar
actions fulfill the dictates of the tov in God’s purpose for the world;
one must also limit one’s tov based on
the yashar. A righteous end
does not justify corrupt means. Even
the intention to advance the divine purpose does not provide a license for all
activity aimed at achieving that goal.
The Confluence of Spirit and Law
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein
deals with this issue in his seminal essay, “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an
Ethic Independent of Halakha?” One
of the points that Rav Lichtenstein develops is that the Torah’s directive “Do
the right and the good,” according to the Ramban’s understanding, includes
within Halakha ethical principles which are not stated explicitly in its laws. As he writes:
If, however, we recognize that Halakhah is
multiplanar and many-dimensional; that, properly conceived,
includes much more than is explicitly required
by specific rules,
we shall realize that the ethical moment we are
seeking is itself an aspect of Halakhah. The demand, or, if you will, the
impetus for transcending the din is itself part of the halakhic corpus.
(Modern Jewish Ethics, p.70)
Love of God
In conclusion, the idea of looking more deeply into
God’s commandments and contemplating God’s true desires is essentially a part of
the Rambam’s description of the mitzva of loving God.
We are commanded to love God, that is to say, to
dwell upon and contemplate His commandments, His injunctions, and His works, so
that we may obtain a conception of Him, and in conceiving Him obtain absolute
joy. This constitutes the love of
God and is obligatory. As the Sifrei
says: “It is stated, ‘And you shall love Lord your God’ (Devarim
6:5). How is one to manifest his love for
God? Scripture therefore says (ibid. v. 6): ‘And these words which I
command you today shall be upon your heart,’” for through this [i.e.
contemplation of God’s words] you will learn to discern Him by whose word the
universe came into existence. (Sefer
Ha-mitzvot, Positive Commandment 3)
If we succeed in allowing our love of God to push us
to study the Torah, so that we may apply its values towards living a life based
on the right and the good, then we will joyously be taking a great step towards
eliminating the baseless hatred which destroyed our Temple.