Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

Parashat VaEtchanan: What is the “Just and Good in Hashem’s Eyes?” by Yaakov Bieler

August 9, 2011 by  
Filed under New Posts

A verse that suggests an overall goal for the observant individual.

In Parashat VaEtchanan, a key verse for us at KMS in light of what is written atop the Aron Kodesh in the Main Sanctuary,[1] is found in Devarim 6:18, “And you will do what is just and good in the Eyes of God in order that He Do good for you, and you will come and inherit the good land that HaShem Swore to your fathers.”

A straightforward interpretation of the verse.

The first portion of the verse, “And you will do what is just and good in the Eyes of God is generally subject to two interpretive approaches. The contextual understanding, or the “Peshat” (simple, literal meaning), which takes into particular consideration the preceding verse (6:17) “You will surely observe the Commandments of the Lord, your God, and His Testimonies and His Statutes that He Commands you”, would maintain that in order to not test HaShem (6:16) one ought to comply with His Directives, because these Commandments constitute what is “just and good in the Eyes of God”, with 6:18 merely restating the contents of 6:17 in a more theological manner. We are told to recognize that rather than Commanding us in an arbitrary fashion to simply see if we are ready to conform to His Will, God Commands us in a manner that represents what He Considers just and good. Consequently, when we observe the Commandments, we are enacting God’s Will and the behaviors of which He specifically Approves, a manifestation of Avot 2:4: He (R. Gamliel, son of R. Yehuda HaNasi), used to say, “Make His Will like your will, so that He Will Make His Will like your will…” Since reward and punishment according to the Tora[2] are directly linked to an individual’s conformity or lack thereof with the Tora’s demands, it is logical to assume that carrying out the Tora’s commandments will result in positive consequences, including inheriting the land of Israel with a minimum amount of sacrifice, as stipulated in 6:18-19.

The Talmud appears to interpret the verse in question differently.

An alternate understanding, typically falling into the “Derash” (homiletic) category, of the phrase in question in 6:18, “And you will do what is just and good in the Eyes of God…”, first appearing in Bava Metzia 16b and 108a, interprets these words not as a restatement of 6:17, but rather as representing an entirely new category of behaviors that heretofore have not been mentioned in the Tora. [3] The Talmudic applications in Bava Metzia, however, do  not directly explain the connotation of 6:18; the Rabbis, whose views appear in the Talmudic texts, merely cite the Biblical verse in order to justify how they wish the scenarios that have been presented in the Gemora to be resolved.

Bava Metzia 16b deals with the following situation: A third party finds documents in a public place that provides for a lender to keep, or search for and confiscate property of a borrower as part of the compensation for a prior loan. There is a lengthy discussion with regard to whether such a document should be returned to the creditor by the one finding it, since it is possible that the debt has already been repaid, and the borrower may end up having to pay a second time for the loan that he incurred by losing the collateral property. Raba explains the point of view that maintains that the document ought to be returned to the creditor by the following logic—a) the borrower is negligent if he had already paid the loan but he has no proof to that effect, because if that was the case, he either should have torn up the original promissory document, or he should have asked for a receipt of his repayment which would then have constituted proof that his property was not to be transferred to the lender; b) the Tora law provides for a lender keeping any property offered to him by a borrower in order to effect a debt.[4] The only reason why such property is to be returned to the borrower is because of “And you will do what is just and good in the Eyes of God…” It would appear that the Talmud is assuming that Devarim 6:18 does not call for adherence to the letter of the law, but rather something more.

Bava Metzia 108a applies 6:18 in a similar manner. R Nachman said, “If one, by paying the estate taxes, takes possession of land lying between the fields belonging to partners or brothers, he is an impudent man, and can be removed because of the law of “Bar Matzra” (right of pre-emption),[5] based upon “And you will do what is just and good in the Eyes of God…” Once again, strict adherence to the written Tora law would provide for whoever pays for the land to be the rightful owner, regardless of the interests of the neighbors. 6:18 applies a different standard to how this economic transaction should be carried out.

RaMBaN notes the two approaches to Devarim 6:18 that are discussed above, and categorizes them as “Peshat” vs. “Derash”.

According to PESHAT, it says to observe the Commandments of HaShem and His Testimonies and His Statutes, and exclusively intend by means of carrying them out to do what is just and good in His Eyes.

“In order that He Do Good for you…” is a promise. He Says that when one does what is good in His Eyes, He Will Do Good to you, because God Does Good for those who do good and justly in their hearts.

And the Rabbis have for this a beautiful MIDRASH. They said: This (the first part of 6:18) is referring to compromise AND[6] going beyond the letter of the law, and the intention with regard to this, that initially (6:17) He said, “You shall observe His Statutes and Testimonies that He Commands you,” whereas now (6:18) He Says, “Even concerning those matters that I have not explicitly commanded you, pay careful attention to try to do what is just and good in His Eyes, because He Loves the good and the just…”

The dangers inherent within as well as the necessity for striving to go beyond the letter of the law.

The reason why RaMBaN may view the interpretation provided for 6:18 by the Talmud as a “Derash” rather than “Peshat” is the potential anarchical result when one suggests that laws of the Tora deal with that which is unsaid in addition to what is explicitly articulated. While acting in accordance with the “spirit of the law” is certainly an understandable value, it is highly likely that there will be major disagreements and variations among different interpreters of the Tora as to the exact nature of the spirit of the law. Even the Talmud in Bava Metzia provides only two specific examples for its understanding of Devarim 6:18. [7] How are we to determine where else this rule is meant to be applied? However extensive Talmudic law may be as developed over the course of its approximately 60tractates of the Babylonian and Jerusalem versions of the Talmud[8] combined with the commentaries and super commentaries that have been composed down through the ages, there are both disagreements over how old situations are to be approached in accordance with God’s Will, as well as new situations that are constantly arising that have no obvious solution explicitly stated somewhere in the codified texts of long ago. This is precisely the point of RaMBaN in the continuation of his remarks on 6:18:

…And this is an important issue. It is impossible to list in the Tora every interaction of an individual with his friends and his neighbors, and all of his business dealings, and the various things needed to assure the proper development of all societies and nations. But rather, once many of them have been mentioned, such as (VaYikra 19:16) “One should not be a talebearer”; (Ibid. 18) “You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge”; (Ibid., 16) “You shall not stand by while the blood of your friend is spilled”; (Ibid., 14) “You shall not curse the deaf”; (Ibid., 32) “You shall stand before one who is elderly”, etc., the Tora summarizes and states “And you will do what is just and good in the Eyes of God…” in all matters, to the point where you enter into compromises and legal decisions that are beyond the letter of the law…

Does pursuing Tora truths beyond the letter of the law lead to greater factionalism among Jews?

Yet although striving to go beyond the letter of the law not  may have been God’s baseline intent for the system all along—see R. Yehoshua’s response to R. Eliezer in Bava Metzia 59b when he invokes Devarim 30:12, and insists that law follow majority rule rather than Divine Interventions because, “Lo BaShamayim Hih” (It [the solution for applying the Tora’s principles] does not lie in Heaven [but rather among the Rabbis entrusted with interpreting the Tora as it appears, rather than according to some amorphous “beyond the letter of the law” standard]—the various denominations of Judaism throughout the centuries as a result of these ambiguities, have been vigorously debating the definition of the parameters of the “spirit of the law” to the point where it sometimes appears to the outsider that there is more than one Jewish religion. A parallel observation was made during an even earlier historical period, when the disagreements between the schools of Hillel and Shamai regarding the manner in which the Tora proper was meant to be observed remained unresolved due to the dissolution of the Sanhedrin, and Tosefta Sota 14:9 commented that it appeared that there were two traditions rather than a single Tora. So, according to RaMBaN, how could these interpretations designed to extrapolate from the Tora new principles and applications be anything but Derash, however noble and humane such Halachic innovations may prove to be?

Comparing RaMBaN’s approach to the verse with that of RaShI.

Understanding RaMBaN in this manner sharpens the difficulty posed by RaShI’s laconic comment on Devarim 6:18: “This is compromise[9] beyond the letter of the law.” On any number of occasions, RaShI will cite both “Peshat” and “Derash” as possible understandings of verses of the Tora.[10] Yet in this instance he only presents a single understanding of the first phrase under scrutiny. Can we deduce whether RaShI felt that his interpretation was either “Peshat” or “Derash”? While in his commentary on the verses where both types of interpretations are cited, he identifies which is which, can his silence with regard to the verses where he presents a single interpretation be understood to constitute one approach or the other?

Accounting for RashI’s perspective vis-à-vis Midrashic interpretations.

Nechama Leibowitz, ZaTzaL,[11] refers to one of RaShI’s own comments for guidance in determining his approach with regard to citing interpretations of “Peshat” and “Derash”.

(From RaShI on Beraishit 3:8) There are many Midrashai Aggada (Midrash that deals with the story sections of the Tora—as opposed to the Halachic/legal sections). Our Rabbis have already arranged them in their proper place in Beraishit Rabba (as well as in other Midrashic collections). And I have come for no other reason than to present the “Peshat” of the text and with such Aggadot that explain the words of the text in a manner that fits in with them.

Therefore, according to Nechama, even when RaShI identifies an approach as “Midrash”, he sees it as enhancing and expanding “Peshat”. While the interpretations that the commentator cites may originate from different types of primary sources, the goal in quoting them is the same, to understand the simple meaning of the text. Consequently, even a “Derash”, should it be quoted by RaShI, is similarly addressing “Peshat” problems, albeit in a different manner and from a different direction. And if this is so when more than one interpretation is presented, when a single interpretation is cited by RaShI, regardless of where else it may be quoted, RaShI apparently perceives it as the only “Peshat” that makes sense for the verse in question.

If we accept such a conceptual idea, then we must presume that according to RaShI, it is unsatisfactory to claim that 6:18 is merely a restatement of 6:17. Furthermore, understanding Devarim 6:18 as a reference to exclusively “compromise going beyond the letter of the law” is not simply an alternative to “Peshat”, but the very “Peshat” itself. This in turn leads to the conclusion that the variation in text regarding the presence or absence of the conjunction “Vav” (see fn. 9), becomes very significant in light of our speculations concerning why RaMBaN sees this interpretation as “Derash” rather than “Peshat.” Although in his critical edition of RaShI, R. Chaim Chavell[12] argues that the absence of the “Vav” in the RaShI text should not make a difference, and that the verse should be understood to connote two separate elements, i.e., “the just”—“compromise”, “the good”—“beyond the letter of the law”, nevertheless, the first published critical edition of RaShI by Avraham Berliner,[13] makes no attempt to discount the absence of the “Vav”. This could lead us to posit that rather than making a case for all the various forms of “beyond the letter of the law” that are possible; RaShI draws attention to only one type, i.e., compromise. Whether or not doubts can be raised regarding all sorts of interpretations that contend they are in the true spirit of Tora, compromise specifically is the most obvious and universally acceptable of what is “just and good in God’s Eyes.”

Could compromise be the ultimate “Just and Good in the Eyes of HaShem”?

While one could understand why striving to reach a compromise in order to reconcile feuding parties would be a desirable outcome, it is significant to note that whether or not compromise is a virtue, is a subject of strong debate in Sanhedrin 6b-7a. R. Elazar, the son of R. Yose HaGalili was fundamentally opposed to compromise in at least legal disputes, believing that it obfuscates the law, and even though a strict legal decision may result in the losing litigant being extremely unhappy and resentful, God Cares more about the proper application of the law than social tranquility. The majority of opinions in the Talmud, however, disagree with this view, and not only see compromise as an option for the resolution of a legal dispute, but even a Mitzva (a positive, Divinely Ordained prerogative). The figure of Aharon HaKohen is invoked as the champion of Peshara and pursuing peace. But this does not prevent the detractors of such an approach from blaming Aharon’s inclination towards compromise for his lack of opposition and even tacit participation in the construction of the Golden Calf.

An identity between God and Peace.

Therefore, perhaps the most convincing evidence that peace is “just and good in the Eyes of HaShem” is the association of the theme of peace with HaShem Himself. Consider the following Midrash in VaYikra Rabba 9:9:

Said R. Shimon ben Yochai: Great is PEACE, because all blessings are included within it.

(Tehillim 29:11) “HaShem Gives power to His People, HaShem Blesses His People with PEACE.”

Chizkiya said two things concerning this topic:

1) Great is PEACE because all commandments are associated with it.

(Shemot 23:5) “When you see the donkey of someone who hates you laying under its burden… you shall surely unload it with him.”

(Shemot 23:4) “If you meet your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you will surely bring it back  to him again.”

(Devarim 22:6) “If a bird’s nest happens to be in the way…you shall not take the mother bird  together with the young, but you shall surely let the mother bird go…”

When a Mitzva presents itself to you, you are obligated to fulfill it, but if it is not readily available, you are not obligated to do it. However, in the case of promoting peace,

(Tehillim 34:15) “Seek out PEACE and pursue it.” Seek it in your place and pursue it in another place.

2) Great is PEACE, because in all of the journeys, it is written, “And They traveled” “And They encamped.” They traveled embroiled in disputes and they encamped embroiled in disputes. When all of them came to Mt. Sinai, they all joined in a single encampment, as it is written, (Shemot 19:2) “And Israel ‘VaYichan’ (singular) encamped there.”…Said HaShem: This is the moment when I Will Give the Tora to My Children…

Said R. Yuden son of R. Yose: Great is PEACE because the Name of HaShem is called PEACE.

As it is said (Shoftim 6:24) “And he called Him HaShem PEACE”…

R. Yishmael taught: Great is PEACE, because the Great Name that is written in holiness, HaShem Commands that it be obliterated in water in order to create peace between husband and wife. (See BaMidbar 5:23 and Mishna Sota 1:4)…

Consequently according to RaShI, in addition to the Tora literally calling upon us to live a life of Tora and Mitzvot, we should also be pursuing those types of activities that can bring additional peace to the world, whether between individuals who are having monetary disputes as in the examples in Bava Metzia, or families, communities, and countries who may be having difficulty co-existing and maintaining mutual respect.  Perhaps pursuing peace is the ultimate fulfillment of “VeHalachta BeDerachav” (And you shall go in His Ways.)[14]


The Talmud in Avoda Zora 25a asks the following question: “Why is the book of Devarim referred to as Sefer HaYashar (the book of the just)?” And the response is because it contains the verse, “And you will do what is just and good in the Eyes of God”. If this is considered, at least according to this source, the most important verse in Devarim, more so than even the Shema (Devarim 6) or the Ten Commandments (Devarim 5), we have our work cut out for us if we are to live up to HaShem’s Expectations.

[1] See http://www.kmsynagogue.org/tour.htm

[2] Comprehensive examples of the cause-and-effect relationship between reward and punishment include: VaYikra 26; Devarim 11:13-21; 28.

[3] These two positions exemplify a classical dispute throughout the world of the commentators, perhaps assuming its most clear-cut form in the contradictory views of R.’s Yishmael and Akiva, as in e.g., Sanhedrin 90b. On the one hand, R. Yishmael maintains that it is an unreasonable expectation to assume that every word and phrase in the Tora must represent a unique concept in terms of itself, and therefore it is appropriate to assume “Dibra Tora KeLashom Benai Adam” (the Tora employs language that parallels how human beings communicate with one another, i.e., they do not necessarily speak in such a laconic fashion that everything that they say should be listened to carefully and precisely understood.) R. Akiva, however, saw meaning in every word, letter and even dot atop letters, and would never attribute anything found in the Tora to a paralleling of human style, and mere redundancy and flowery literary language and expression.

[4] This property is not considered a surety against the loan; it is in exchange for the loan being even offered in the first place.

[5] “Matzra” = neighbor, borderer. An individual whose land borders on the land of another, in the event that the latter wishes to sell his property, the former has the right to demand that it be sold to him.

[6] See RaShI’s different version of this text mentioned below, as well as footnote (9). The difference between RaMBaN and RaShI in this regard will be discussed further along in the essay.

[7] The reference to Devarim 6:18 in Bava Metzia 35a deals with a principle which has already been invoked in the discussion in 16b.

[8] Not all Mishnaic tractates have both Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud commentaries.

[9] The text of RaMBaN places a “Vav” (the conjunction for “and”) between “compromise” and “beyond the letter of the law”, whereas RaShI omits the “Vav”.

[10] See for example RaShI on Beraishit 1:27; 8:7; 9:7; 15:5; Shemot 2:6, 14; 4:22; 6:13; VaYikra 4:3; 13:52; 15:3; 16:2; BaMidbar 23:21; 24:4; Devarim 1:6; 4:32; 7:7.

[11] Nechama Leibowitz and Moshe Arend, “Matai Nizkak RaShI LeMidrash Aggada?”, in Peirush RaShI LaTora-Iyunim BeShitato, Vol. 2, Open University, Tel Aviv, 1990, p. 362.

[12] Peirush RaShI Al HaTora, Mosad HaRav Kook, Yerushalayim, 1982, p. 531, fn. 82.

[13] RaShI Al HaTora, Y. Kaufman, Frankfurt, 1903, p. 365. Nechama Leibowitz always preferred Berliner’s edition to that of Chavel

[14] Devarim 28:9. Sota 14a lists a number of ways of emulating God, but pursuing peace curiously is not one of them.

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