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