Parashat Ve’etchanan: Commandments, logic and conscience
The Torah refers to specific situations and guides us on how to behave in them, but is it possible to refer to every single situation a person might face?
In the second parasha of the Book of the Deuteronomy, parashat V’etchanan, we read the end of Moses’s first speech, dealing mainly with a historical summary of the central events that occurred during the years when the people of Israel wandered in the desert.
After this speech, he began a long speech, the “Speech of the Commandments,” which Moses delivered to the people during his final days. In this speech, Moses warned the nation that they must keep the commandments, and he detailed many of them, some of which relate to their entry to the Land of Israel.
As Moses repeated again and again in his speeches, the condition to the nation’s success in the land is its devotion to God and keeping His commandments. So, for example, Moses says:
“Diligently keep the commandments of the Lord, your God, and His testimonies and His statutes, which He has commanded you. And you shall do what is proper and good in the eyes of the Lord, in order that it may be well with you, and that you may come and possess the good land which the Lord swore to your forefathers” (Deut. 6:17-18).
If we study these verses, we see a division among different kinds of desired actions: commandments, testimonies and statutes. Commentators have explained that “commandments” are those acts that are clear to any moral person, like interpersonal commandments that preserve proper social order and develop a person’s good traits; “testimonies” are those commandments that express faith in God and His creation of the world, like keeping Shabbat and prayer; and “statutes” are those commandments whose reasons are not clear to us.
The following verse talks about doing “what is proper and good in the eyes of the Lord.” Is this a summary of the three kinds of commandments just listed or was Moses talking about another kind of commandment?
What was Moses talking about?
In the literature of our Sages, these words – “And you shall do what is proper and good…” – serve as a description of behavior that is not obligatory but which stems from our moral conscience and contributes to trust between people.
For example, if a person can get out of paying a debt, but he pays it anyway because his conscience tells him he should; or if a person decides not to purchase land in a place that would bother someone, even though the purchase is legal. Similarly, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, northern France, 11th century) explains that “proper and good” means leniently compromising, such as when a person who knows he can win a lawsuit against someone chooses to compromise and reach an agreement that is acceptable to all sides.
Nahmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, Spain, 13th century) expands on Rashi’s interpretation and teaches the general principle indicated in the words “And you shall do what is proper and good in the eyes of the Lord”:
“The intent of this is as follows: At first, he [Moses] stated that you are to keep His statutes and His testimonies which He commanded you, and now he is stating that even where He has not commanded you, give thought, as well, to do what is good and right in His eyes, for He loves the good and the right.
“Now this is a great principle, for it is impossible to mention in the Torah all aspects of man’s conduct with his neighbors and friends, and all his various transactions, and the ordinances of all societies and countries. But since he mentioned many of them – such as ‘Thou shalt not go about as a talebearer,’ ‘Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge,’ ‘thou shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor,’ ‘Thou shalt not curse the deaf,’ ‘Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head’ – he reverted to state in a general way that, in all matters, one should do what is good and right, including even compromising and going beyond the requirements of the law….
“Thus [a person must seek to refine his behavior] in every form of activity, until he is worthy of being called ‘good and upright’” (Nahmanides on Deut. 6:18).
Nahmanides sees the commandments of the Torah not just as laws referring to one situation or another. He sees them as charting our way, lifestyle and worldview. The Torah refers to specific situations and guides us on how to behave in them, but is it possible to refer to every single situation a person might face? Can the Torah tell me how to behave when a neighbor angers me, or how I should express love to a partner, or how to listen to criticism someone gives me? Can it be that every situation a person faces will be guided by laws? This is obviously impossible, since there is no end to human complexity or situations that might arise.
For this reason, we get the general instruction to do “what is proper and good in the eyes of the Lord.” If you learned the Torah’s commandments and pay attention to the list quoted by Nahmanides, in which he chose social commandments to demonstrate the principle, you are capable of understanding what behavior is proper, worthy and moral even in situations that the Torah does not refer to explicitly. The Torah’s commandments show us the path, and we are called upon to use our logic and conscience to deduce how we should act in any situation we face in life.