In Chapter 12:8, our parsha states: "Lo taasun ish kol hayashar be'eynav, one should not act only in accordance with what seems right in one's own eyes." An individual's personal judgment is not the scale the Torah permits for deciding what is correct, just as, "might does not automatically make right."
Further in the parsha, the Torah restates this thought in the positive, "ki ta'aseh hayeshar vehatov be'eynai Hashem, do what is right and good in the eyes of Hashem," asking that the scale we use to determine what is straight, right, and good be calibrated by Hashem's judgment, rather than our own.
From the context, it is clear that the Torah does not refer here to following "the letter of the law." Just as in Parshat Vaetchanan, the Torah here is directing us to act above and beyond the letter of the law in our daily interactions. But how do we know what is straight, right, and good in the eyes of Hashem?
A society built solely on the letter of the law will not thrive. The rabbis in the Midrash taught that the Temple and Jerusalem were lost because the courts and society rigidly adhered to the letter of the law, refusing to step beyond.
A beautiful illustration of this application is found in the Talmud (B.T. Bava Metzia 83b), which records an incident in which two porters transported wine barrels for Rabbah bar Bar Hanan, a wealthy scholar and sage in his own right. Through an act of negligence on their part, they broke the barrels; Rabbah took their cloaks in payment for their negligence, which is what the law allows. They complained to Rav, the legal decisor in that area, and he instructed Rabbah to return their cloaks. "Is this the law?" asked an astonished Rabbah. "Yes", replied Rav, "based on the verse 'in order that you walk in the way of the good people''' (Proverbs 2).
The porters once again went to complain to Rav: "But we are hungry, since we worked all day and received no payment"; whereupon Rav further instructed Rabbah to provide them with a salary as well. Once again, Rabbah asked: "Is this, too, the law?" to which Rav replied, "Yes, in accordance with the verse 'and the paths of the righteous shall you observe''' (Proverbs 2). Clearly, Rav was telling Rabbah that for him--Rabbah bar Bar Hanan, the wealthy scholar, as compared with two poverty-stricken porters--the law would expect that he would act beyond the legal requirement and provide the porters with payment for their day's labor, despite the losses they had incurred for Rabbah as a result of their negligence.
Rabbah acted in accordance with the law. The workman broke his barrels because of their negligence. The workers claimed their salaries, yet Rabbah rightly refused payment for services not rendered. In his eyes, he owed them nothing. But the great sage and legal expert Rav had Rabbah restore the payment to the workmen, and also pay them their wage so they could feed their families.
This Talmudic story is more than just a tale. It is part and parcel of the legal tradition and code of Jewish law. It illustrates for us with absolute clarity the intent of what is expected of us in acting yasher and tov in the eyes of Hashem. At AJA, we understand that living a caring and loving life--one that does not hold only our own needs front and center, but also has the best interests of our fellow man at its core--is a learned behavior. Even the great Rabbah had to be reminded of this by the wise sage, Rav. Teaching and living Torah, for us, is learning to be straight and right in the eyes of Hashem in all that we do.
Rabbi Pinchos Hecht
It may be for this very reason that our sages, may their memory be a blessing to us, have such profound respect for even the radically divergent opinions of their rabbinic colleagues. The lesson of "Alu ve'elu divrei Elokim chayim, both the opinion of the minority as well as the majority are the words of the Living G-d," confirmed that all informed opinions are divinely inspired. The goal behind this attitude is the creation, development, and growth of an open minded, trained, disciplined, and dedicated group of scholars, judges, rabbis, teachers, and students to lead and direct the people toward a purposeful and fulfilling life of service to both the Divine and mankind.
The minority opinion is always recorded alongside the majority opinion. Yet one has to ask: Once the decision is made, why record the abandoned opinion?
The rabbis, in their great wisdom, knew that by preserving the minority positions issued by trained and accepted scholars, they left open the possibility that a later court could decide an issue in accordance with the minority. An example of this follows.
Rav Moshe Isserles, known as the Rema, served as the Chief Rav of Krakow, Poland, during the sixteenth century. He was considered one of the outstanding experts and judges in Jewish law, and his religious-legal decisions are accepted as authoritative for Ashkenazic Jewry to this very day. Rav Moshe Isserles opens his responsum (no. 125) with the words, "I hear behind me a great rushing noise," the roar of an angry community who questioned him--and were even thinking of deposing him from his rabbinical position--because he allowed a wedding to take place on Friday night!
This was viewed as problematic because the Mishnah (Beitzah 5, 2:20a) forbids conducting a wedding ceremony on the Sabbath. The reasoning behind this decision is explained in the subsequent discussion of the Gemara as, "lest you come to write out the Ketuba, marriage document," without which the couple cannot live together as man and wife. Nevertheless, Rav Moshe Isserles performed such a ceremony.
In a rare introduction to his responsum, the great rabbi explained that the bride's parents had promised a considerable dowry to the groom's parents, but that the bride's father had died shortly before the wedding. The bride's lack of dowry meant that the wedding had been called off at the last moment. At 10:30 on Friday night, an aunt of the groom had convinced her nephew to go ahead with the marriage despite his parents' objections. They arrived at the rabbi's home at that very late hour, and since the rabbi understood that the groom could easily change his mind should there be a delay, the Rema immediately performed the ceremony. Only an immediate wedding would save the bride from the shame of the broken engagement and poverty that would most assuredly have doomed her to spinsterhood.
Rav Moshe Isserles goes on, in his responsum, to cite the minority view of Rabbeinu Tam--that the prohibition against a Shabbat wedding only applied to a couple who already had children from a prior marriage--noting the fact that even Rabbeinu Tam himself would only permit a Shabbat marriage "under extreme duress" (bedohak gadol). The Rema felt that this minority opinion was sufficient to rely on in the case of the couple who stood before him; thus, the importance of preserving every minority opinion!
In a similar vein, why was the School of Hillel recorded as the source of all final halachot, and not the School of Shammai? Were not the words of Shammai also called the words of the Living G-d?
The scholars of Bet Hillel were accepted as the decisors "because they were sweet-tempered, modest, and accept rebuke; moreover, when asked the law, they first presented the opposing opinion of the Academy of Shammai, and then presented their own view" (BT Rosh Hashanah 14). A system of laws taught and developed by such great rabbis is truly a testament to the words of our holy and eternal Torah, "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof."
Rabbi Pinchos Hecht
Head of School, Atlanta Jewish Academy
Parshat Aikev retells the story of Moshe's breaking of the first set of luchot, tablets, and Hashem's command to Moshe to carve a second set of tablets to bring with him upon his return to Mt. Sinai.
This begs the question: What is the difference between the first set of tablets and the second set? If Moshe was correct to break the first set--and, according to the Midrash, Hashem thanks him for breaking them--why does Hashem command Moshe to carve a second set?
We hope to compare and contrast the two sets of tablets with the two batei mikdash, Holy Temples--both destroyed, may they quickly be rebuilt in our day--that we just finished mourning during the recent three week period.
Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of what was then called Palestine, taught that the Jewish people possess two distinct kinds of kedusha, holiness. The first he called segula, defined as the innate holiness that resides in each and every Jew, flowing through us as it accumulates and brings holiness from us to all people and to the land of Israel.
The second type of holiness Rav Kook spoke of is "acquired holiness". It reflects the earned kedusha that we accumulate through keeping the mitzvot, doing good deeds, prayer, and the study of our holy Torah.
By his nature, man tends to value what is earned by effort more than what is given and requires no effort. The Talmud teaches that "adam rotzeh bekav sheloh yoter mitisha kabin shel chaveiroh". At the end of the growing season, the farmer prefers one measure of his own homegrown produce over nine measures that were grown by his friend. Acquired holiness is therefore more valuable than segula, innate holiness.
The kedusha of the first Temple, like the holiness of the first set of tablets, was innate, or segula. It was a gift from the Almighty to his beloved children, and it was far more precious than any holiness man could achieve on his own.
But regretfully, we point to the adage, "easy come, easy go". Unearned, the first tablets and the first Temple were not sufficiently appreciated and did not last, despite their unique greatness. We failed to grasp the gift with which we had been blessed.
The second set of tablets was the work of Moshe, sanctioned and made holy by Hashem. Likewise, the Judaism that emerged during and after the second Temple, what we refer to as "Rabbinic Judaism," is the work and development of the sages and the people, sanctioned and made holy by Hashem.
It is the creation, creativity, imagination, and works of man that follow from the dictates of our holy Torah--using the G-d-given creativity and talent instilled in us by our creator--that take on an eternal quality, and stand the test of time. Our Rabbis teach us, "kol mah shetalmid atid lehitchadesh nitan beSinai, every word of Torah and every new insight in Torah study was already included and given at Sinai."
The message to us is clear. Holiness that lasts takes effort and sacrifice. The lasting impact of our Yiddishkeit is directly commensurate with the effort and investment we make. Holy families and holy children are the product of our intentional and engaged lifestyle.
May we all merit that our efforts on behalf of our people, Torah, and land are sanctioned by the Almighty with the eternal qualities that we seek for ourselves, our families, and our community.
Rabbi Pinchos Hecht