Volume 31 Issue 24 12 Aug 2022 15 Av 5782

Seeking out a right and good path

Adam Carpenter – Head of Jewish Life Primary

Seeking out a right and good path

In Parashat Ve’etchanan, Moshe continues his speech to the People of Israel, in what will become part of his final words to those who are present to hear them directly and also to later generations who will read them in the Torah. Moshe’s tone is epic and inspiring, as he reminds the people of the journey they have been on and their ultimate destination. Moshe notes that whilst he will get to see the Promised Land from afar, he will not enter it and that Joshua will lead them instead. On numerous occasions, Moshe reminds the people of the תורה (Torah – Teachings); to remember and act upon all the mitzvot, rules, laws and teachings that have been placed before them. 

Parashat Ve’etchanan contains two significant passages that have shaped Judeo-Christian ethics and the meaning and shape of Jewish life. Firstly, we read a repetition of the עשרת הדברות Aseret HaDibrot (the 10 Utterances) also known as the 10 Commandments. These rules are a foundation of Judeo-Christian morality and law. A few verses laterת we read the first paragraph of Shema, the most famous Jewish prayer, which is recited three times a day. The prayer begins with instructions for Israel (namely, the Jewish People) to ‘listen’ and to ‘love’ God with all of your heart (לְבָבְךָ), all of your soul (נַפְשְׁךָ) and all of your might (מְאֹדֶךָ). From this holistic perspective of living a life where mind, body and spirit are aligned in purpose and action, comes our Emanuel School motto ‘Mind, Spirit, Being’. Also contained in this Shema are some of the rituals that shape Jewish daily life; the recitation of the shema, the mezuzah and tefillin, and the importance of passing the tenets of Judaism down through the generations. 

Given the magnitude and significance of the Shema passage, it may be tempting to focus our attention on studying these verses alone. Yet, in two verses that follow, it is two words that drew the interest of our Rabbinic commentators: 

“Be sure to keep the commandments, decrees, and laws that Adonai your God has enjoined upon you. Do what is right and good (הַיָּשָׁר וְהַטּוֹב) in the sight of Adonai, that it may go well with you and that you may be able to go in and possess the good land that Adonai your God promised to your ancestors to give you”. (Deuteronomy 6:17-18)

Rashi, the famous 11th century commentator, understood the words הַיָּשָׁר וְהַטּוֹב to mean ‘a compromise, acting beyond the strict demands of the law’. Ramban (Nachmanides) the 13th Century commentator agrees with Rashi and extends the idea further to say the Torah cannot contain all the rules to govern our behaviour. As such, Torah rules and commandments should be viewed as starting points, and that in “all matters, one should do what is good and right, including even compromise and going beyond the requirements of the law”. 

I find it interesting that both Rashi and Ramban’s interpretations of the instruction ‘do what is right and good’ demonstrate deep insight into human nature, relationships and morality. Following repeated exhortations in this parasha to follow the laws and the rules, they push us to see that what is ‘right and good’ can involve compromise and going beyond the letter of the law. The late Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks also taught: ‘At times being good, upright and moral involves compromise and going above and beyond the letter of the law.’ 

We have all had moments in life, in our relationships and interactions with others where doing ‘what is right and good’ involves compromise, kindness or acting beyond what is written on the page. There are undoubtedly times when both following and enforcing the rules are important and the right thing to do. There are also times when following and enforcing the rules can be an easy way through a difficult situation. 

There are also times when doing ‘what is right and good’ involves compromise and acting beyond the letter of the law, in the spirit of something greater. 

Life can be messy and complicated. We are not perfect and we will make mistakes.

Being inspired by these two words  הַיָּשָׁר וְהַטּוֹב, may we have the courage, wisdom and insight to act with kindness, compassion and respect, to do ‘what is right and good’

Shabbat Shalom