Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat Va’Ethanan: Do what is right and good

0 Comments 31 July 2017

Our tradition teaches us to always seek to do “what is right and good.” Certainly keeping the mitzvot is part of that, but is that all that is needed in order to do what it right in the sight of God?

Palestinian farmer ploughs his land under Israeli outpost

Palestinian farmer from Jalud ploughs his land under Israeli outpost

By Rabbi Jonathan Matt

Our yearly Torah cycle brings us back to Parashat va’Ethanan, one of the most important weekly portions, containing both Shema Yisrael and the Ten Commandments. But this year, let’s consider a less famous selection:

“Be sure to keep the commandments, exhortations, and laws which the Lord your God has enjoined upon you.

Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you and that you may be able to occupy the good land which the Lord your God promised on oath to your fathers” -Dt. 6:17-18, NJPS

The text is clear. But what is the precise connection between keeping the mitzvot (commandments) and doing “right and good.” There are several options:

• Doing “right and good” is an automatic consequence of keeping the mitzvot.

• Awareness and effort are required for the mitzvot to also achieve doing “right and good.”

• Sometimes, a general law needs to be developed, according to the principle of, “Do what is right and good.”

As Jewish law developed, the third option became an accepted legal principle:

“There are laws that require supplementation for social and economic justice…. During the Amoraic period, ‘Do what is right and good’ became accepted as a full legislative principle of Jewish law.” -Menachem Elon, Jewish Law (Heb.), Vol 3, p. 513.

One of the areas in which the Sages implemented this principle was the rights of an adjacent landowner in a property sale: Reuven and Shimon had adjacent properties. Reuven sold his to Levi, who did not own any adjacent property. The deed was signed, the money was paid, and Levi took ownership of the property.

The “adjacent landowner” clause gives Shimon the right to pay the purchase price to Levi and take ownership the land that Reuven had sold to Shimon. From the Talmud:

“We remove him [Levi] based on the adjacent landowner rule, as is said: ‘Do what is right and good.'” -Bava Metsia 108a

If we assume that a Palestinian state should be established—for the benefit of both Jews and Palestinians—perhaps we should consider not only the general principle of, “Do what is right and good,” but also the adjacent landowner rule.

Non-publicized purchase of Palestinian land by Jews would not necessarily be the final word, as Palestinian neighbors would have adjacent landowner rights. And if the “adjacent landowner” principle were also applied at state level, it would limit disruption of Palestinian areas by Jewish settlements.

Before concluding, let’s take another look at the rejected connection between Dt. 6:17 and 6:18:

• Doing “right and good” is an automatic consequence of keeping the mitzvot.

Why is this connection rejected? Perhaps because it would be in conflict with the value-concept t’shuvah (repentance). Three times each weekday, we pray, “Forgive us, father, for we have sinned.” We hope that keeping the mitzvot helps us, “Do what is right and good.” But we must constantly examine our intentions, correcting our errors. Performing mitzvot does not exempt us from an ongoing process of t’shuvah.

May our observance of mitzvot help us, “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord.”

Note: Rabbis for Human Rights is a human rights rights organisation and does not favor one political solution to the on-going conflict over another.

JMatt_2902 smaller fileRabbi Jonathan Matt belongs to Kibbutz Malkiya in the Upper Galilee. He is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights.

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