“Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.” (Deut. 6:6)
In Parashat Va-etchanan, Moses prepares the Israelites to enter the land of Canaan by teaching the laws of the Torah. He begins by repeating the Ten Commandments (with slight variations from the version in Exodus) and presents the Sh’ma (Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, God is one.”) as an extension of the first commandment.
Later in the parasha (portion) Moses exhorts the Israelites to follow the “commandments, decrees, and laws” of the Torah (Det. 6:17). That seems pretty comprehensive, so it’s puzzling when, in the very next verse, Moses adds: “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord” (Det. 6:18). This short verse is the foundation for a Jewish world view: generosity of spirit.
Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) interprets the verse to mean there are times when observing the letter of the law is neither right nor good. In those cases, Rashi says, the Torah intends us to, “Go beyond the letter of the law,” meaning to be generous and give more (or take less) than the law requires. Nachmanides (a 13th century Spanish commentator) builds on this idea, stating that in interpersonal cases not specified in the Torah, we must consider the spirit of the Torah. Avoiding the appearance of impropriety, or a concern for fairness help us recognize the right thing to do—even when it is not dictated by law and even if it means personal sacrifice. Going “above and beyond” is a fundamental building block of Jewish community.
This is a remarkable perspective and makes halacha, Jewish law, the servant of the Jewish people (as opposed to the other way around). “Be generous of spirit” is not something you’ll find in other ancient (or recent) law codes. It very well may be the reason the Jewish people are still around.
Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,