Understanding the spirit — and letter — of Jewish law

Deuteronomy 12:28 reads: “Safeguard and hearken to all these words that I command you…when you do what is good and right in the eyes of Hashem your God.”
A basic question we may pose is: Isn’t it sufficient to obey all the words of the Torah? What, in addition, is being asked of us by stating that we must also do “what is good and right?”
There is a need to state this to countermand a lifestyle that, while religiously observant, is empty in terms of inner beauty and spirit.
One could simply “go through the motions” of Jewish life, but not connect with one’s heart and soul. Rather, one must act with goodness and righteousness even when complying with mitzvot. The Torah is communicating to us an overview of both behavior and attitude to permeate a person’s approach to God’s commandments.
It is not possible or desirable for the Torah to list every possible human action or interaction. Rather, the Torah gave us representative laws and then their guiding principles, what we can call meta-halacha. This goes beyond the law, and addresses itself to the spirit of the laws that should never get lost in our compliance with the laws themselves.
There are two faces to the law: the outer one, called the letter of the law, and the inner one, called the spirit of the law. Nahmanides teaches us that we are to obey mitzvot, but also do them for the right reason. If one ignores the spirit of the mitzvah, you fulfill only one part of the Torah declaration: “Do what is good and right.”
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 83a) provides a powerful example: Rabbah bar Bar Chana was a scholar and wealthy individual. He hired porters to transport barrels of wine. The workers were negligent and broke the barrels. The rabbi wanted payment from the workers for the damages and lost wine. He took their clothing in lieu of payment.
The porters went to Rav to stake their claim. Rav ruled in their favor and their garments were returned. Bar Chana asked Rav, “Is this the law?”
Rav affirmed his ruling, citing a verse from Proverbs (2:20): “In order that you may walk in the road of good men.” Technically, the porters were at fault, but Rav dealt with them, according to a higher spirit of the law.
The porters were still unhappy. They had worked all day and wanted to be compensated for their labors (though they had damaged the barrels). They complained that they were hungry and needed their pay to purchase food for themselves and their families.
Again, Rav ruled in their favor. The astonished Bar Chana again asked: “Is this the law?”
Rav affirmed his decision quoting the end of that same verse from Proverbs: “And you shall guard the path of the righteous.”
Rav explained that based on strict law, he would have to rule in favor of Bar Chana, who hired the porters. But Rav took into account all the circumstances of the case: wealth, poverty, scholars and laborers.
Rav said the facts have to be tempered by the situation. Ethically, the porters were dependent on their daily wages for their very sustenance. So, Rav went lifnei me’shurat ha’din — beyond the letter of the law.
The Torah requires us to do what is both good and righteous, to keep both the letter and spirit of the law. If an individual concentrates only on one, it causes a shift in the delicate balance of things. One could end up dangling dangerously off the side. When we balance the two together, we reach physical and spiritual heights. We can then walk on a high wire without fear of falling.
We thereby formulate a religious balance and harmony.
That is precisely what we should seek, as we begin the month of Elul, one month preceding Rosh Hashanah.
Shabbat Shalom.
Chodesh Tov.
Rabbi Wolk is community chaplain of Jewish Family Service and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shaare Tefilla.

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