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Parashat Va-etchanan (Deut. 3:23-7:11)

“For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand
as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him?” (Deuteronomy 4:7)

In Parashat Va-etchanan, Moses continues to prepare the Israelites to enter the land of Canaan by recapitulating the Torah’s commandments. He tells them, “Be sure to keep the commandments, decrees, and laws that the Lord your God has enjoined upon you.” In the very next verse, he continues, “Do hayashar v’hatov, what is right and good, in the sight of the Lord…” (Deut. 6:17, 18) This is puzzling; isn’t keeping all God’s commandments, decrees, and laws the definition of doing what is right and good? Nachmanides (1194 – 1270; 13th century Spanish commentator) says hayashar v’hatov addresses those situations not identified specifically in the Torah.

Other commentators examine the distinction between the right and the good and righteousness and goodness. Rabbi Elliot Dorff (1943-; theologian and bio-ethicist) explains: what is right is a duty arising out of a relationship. Different levels of relationship therefore entail different duties or obligations. This means the right thing to do is always personal. What is good, on the other hand, is what produces the best outcome. The good thing to do is a function of the goal and doesn’t require any personal relationship. When directed toward others, it becomes a moral good, but that’s not required. What is right is usually judged by outsiders in terms of action, while what is good is usually judged by motive.

Va-etchanan’s command to do hayashar v’hatov, therefore, defines a behavioral code requiring consideration of your duties to those nearest you when assuming obligations to the larger society, asking if your motives are altruistic or narcissistic, and aligning your behavior with your ideals. Each is necessary, none is sufficient.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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