Doing the Good and the Right

Are goodness and righteousness subjective things? Not according to our tradition, which states “…for you will do that which is good and right in the eyes of the Lord…”[1] How is this determined? Is what is good always the same as what is right? In an article entitled Doing the Good and the Right,[2] Rabbi Marc Angel quotes Rabbi Benzion Uziel z”l the first Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, comments “Righteousness and justice, compassion and truth–these concepts exist simultaneously, as difficult as this is to comprehend. The fundamental teaching of the law of justice is that one may not show compassion in justice, but should uphold the law whatever the consequences. On the other hand, we are taught to do that which is good and upright, and we may compel behavior which is beyond the letter of the law (לפנים משורת הדין).”

Rabbi Uziel notes that the rabbinic judge must balance these seemingly conflicting claims. A decision must be reached that reflects both truth and compassion.  The halakha must not only be right–it must be good. In his own writings, Rabbi Uziel reflected a profound commitment to truth, and an overwhelming commitment to compassion. His rabbinic rulings are classic models of halakhic decision-making. He understood that the halakha must relate to real human beings in real life situations; halakha is not a set of abstract rules to be observed by sectarians and ascetics.

In one of his lectures many years ago, Rabbi Ovadya Yosef referred to two tendencies in religious life. One is “gevurah”–heroism. This tendency is marked by the desire to adopt as many stringencies as possible to demonstrate how self-sacrificing one can be in fulfilling the mitzvot. Followers of the “gevurah” approach draw on the strictest halakhic views, even when there are much more cogent and sensible views available within halakha.  They prefer extreme positions, thinking that stringency is equated with greater religiosity.

The second tendency is “hessed”–compassion.  This tendency is marked by the desire to deal with halakha in a humane, loving and kind manner. Religion should reflect lovingkindness, a profound sympathy for the human predicament, an optimism that God loves us. Followers of the “hessed” approach shun extremism and unnecessary stringencies.  Rav Ovadya Yosef comes down on the side of “hessed”, indicating that this was the quality that characterized the School of Hillel, whose opinions were accepted over those of the School of Shammai.

Surely one must observe mitzvot carefully; but just as surely, one must fulfill them in a spirit of joy and compassion.  The mitzvot were given to bring us happiness and spiritual fulfillment, not to serve as a constant source of fear and spiritual inadequacy. Excessive stringency is no more a sign of true religiosity than excessive leniency.

We are called upon to do that which is good and right in the eyes of God.  This is a tremendous challenge–and an honor.  It entails the fulfillment of the teachings of the Torah in a spirit of truth and compassion, but favoring the tendency to have “hessed”.

We are here at a momentous occasion-the 70th wedding anniversary of two very special people: Philip and Pearl Friend. They have truly been friends of the Jericho Jewish Center, here for us at numerous celebratory events. They are best known as the parents of our balabusta Barbara Rosenblum, who is the heart and soul of our congregation, doing so much both in person and behind the scenes to strengthen us. As we know, the 70th anniversary is a very special one, being a Second Bar Mitzvah. Phil lead us this morning in Pesukei D’Zimra, which states that the years of one’s life are seventy[3] so 70 years is a new lease on life. It is so rare to have a couple together for 70 years, and it is an occasion we must celebrate together. I wish you another 70 years of marital bliss and joy seeing your great-grandchildren grow up and your family continuing to expand. Mazal Tov on this very special day!

[1] Deuteronomy 12:28

[2] Rabbi Mark Angel, Doing the Good and the Right, Thoughts for Parshat Re’eh August 7, 2010.

[3] Psalm 90:10 ימי שנותנו בהם שבעין שנה

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