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Going Beyond the Letter of the Law

Part 2

Last week we mentioned the Gemara that tells us that the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because people were makpid (strict) on each other and treated them according to the strict letter of the law[1] . This seems very difficult to understand - it would have seemed that the whole concept of going beyond the letter of the law is something of a stringency and that failing to follow it would not deserve such a strict punishment. Why were the Jewish people treated so harshly for being medakdek (exacting) on each other?

It seems that failure to treat people ‘beyond the letter of the law’ reflects a deep flaw in a person’s attitude to serving HaShem. My Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits Shlita explains, (based on the Ramban on this passuk) that ‘v’asisa hayashar vehatov’ is the bein adam lechaveiro equivalent of ‘kedoshim tehyu (be Holy)’: The Ramban in Parshas Kedoshim explains that a person can keep all of the mitzvos and yet be a menuval b’reshus HaTorah.’ - this means that he is careful not to transgress any mitzvos but at the same time he has no interest in elevating himself in ‘neutral’ areas such as eating and sleeping. The underlying reason behind his lifestyle is that he believes that the Torah is true and therefore must be observed, but he does not subscribe to the true Torah outlook - he has no interest in elevating himself spiritually, rather his goals are very much ’this-worldly’, involving such aims as fulfilling his physical desires and attaining wealth. Because of his recognition of the truth of Torah, he will never deliberately commit sins, nevertheless he will show no interest in elevating himself in areas that he is not technically obligated to do so[2] .

Similarly in the realm of bein adam lechaveiro, a person may recognize the necessity of following the laws of the Torah, however he has no desire to integrate into himself the hashkafos (outlook) behind them. Thus he will always adhere to the strict letter of the law but whenever he has the opportunity to make a financial gain in a technically permissible fashion he will not hesitate to do so. The Torah tells this person that he is making a serious error by instructing him to “do what is right and good”, to act ‘beyond the letter of the law’, to treat people in a merciful fashion, and not be medakdek on every case. The Torah is instructing us that we should develop a genuine sense of love toward our fellow Jews and thereby treat them in the same way that we would want them to treat us - to be forgiving and compassionate. Thus, for example, when someone has lost a valuable object a Jew should not hesitate to return it even if he is not obligated to do so or when a poor person finds himself owing you a large amount of money, a person should act with a degree of flexibility and compassion.

This helps understand why there was such a strict punishment when the Jews treated each other in a strict fashion - they missed the lesson of ‘hayashar b’hatov’ , that it is not right to treat one’s fellow Jew in a harsh and unforgiving manner this does not adhere to the spirit of bein adam lechaverio that the Torah espouses.

1. Bava Metsia, 30b.

2. See my piece on Parsas Vayeira about how Lot epitomized this dichotomy.


Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen and

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