The Right and the Good

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Shira Krinsky

“שמור תשמרון את־מצות ה’ א-להיכם ועדתיו וחקיו אשר צוך

ועשית הישר והטוב בעיני ה’ למען ייטב לך ובאת וירשת את־הארץ הטבה אשר־נשבע ה’ לאבתיך”

(דברים ו:יז-יח)

You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and His testimonies and His statutes, which He has commanded you.  

And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you, and that you may go in and take possession of the good land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers.”

(Devarim 6:17-18)

Rabbi Lord Dr. Jonathan Sacks asks regarding the juxtaposition of these verses: “The difficulty is obvious. The preceding verse makes reference to commandments, testimonies and statutes. This, on the face of it, is the whole of Judaism as far as conduct is concerned. What then is meant by the phrase ‘the right and the good’ that is not already included within the previous verse?”

Rashi and Ramban, in their comments on these Pesukim, both answer this question. Rashi answers that the second verse refers to acting beyond the letter of the law.  Ramban answers that while “the Torah gives us many commandments, such as “do not hold a grudge” or “do not curse a deaf person”, it cannot command us specifically how to act in every single situation,  and that is where the commandment to “do the right and the good” comes in.

Rabbi Sacks cites Rashi and Ramban, but then makes his own suggestion.  “There are aspects of the moral life that cannot be reduced to rules of conduct, because what matters is not only what we do, but the way in which we do it: with humility or gentleness or sensitivity or tact. Morality is about persons, and no two persons are alike.”

Building off of Rabbi Sack’s last sentence, I would like to suggest another message that can be learned from the juxtaposition of these verses.

The Rav, in his essay Community, talks about the dichotomy in Judaism between  the individual and the community. “Both the community-related and the lonely individual, be he man, be she woman, were created by God . . . He is a single, lonely being, not belonging to any structured collectivity. He is also a thou-related being, who co-exists in companionship with somebody else.”

Perhaps this is what our verses are hinting to as well. Everyone must follow all of the mitzvot that Gd has commanded; there is an objective, communal truth to Judaism. On the other hand, everyone must do what is right and good to them; there is a subjective, individualistic truth to Judaism as well.

This dichotomy also emerges from contrasting the writings and beliefs of two other recent Jewish philosophers, Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Leibowitz believes that the religious experience is fundamentally objective. He brings as an example the fact that  everyone says the same Shemonah Esrei prayer, in a language that they might not have any relation to, whether it be someone who is burying a close family member, or a groom on his wedding day. Prayer is just a statement of one’s acceptance of halacha, and to follow halacha, according to Leibowitz, is to waive your right to a subjective religious experience.

Heschel believes in an experiential Judaism, a quest to feel one’s self as in the presence of Gd. Before one must accept the yoke of all of the mitzvot, one must feel a degree of genuineness in their religious life and connection to Gd.  Heschel, as well, describes multiple paths to religious truth.

The juxtaposition in our parsha of “diligently keeping the commandments” and “doing the right and the good” addresses the question: Who is right, Heschel or Lebowitz? The answer — Yes.

Shira Krinsky (SBM 2016) is a junior in Stern College studying psychology.

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