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Deciding What is Good and Right

Author: Esther Ehrman, Av 5764/August 2004

Ki ta'ase ha-yashar be-eynei H ' - "You shall do what is right in the eyes of the Lord" (Deut.ch.12 v.25)

Ki ta'ase ha-tov ve-ha-yashar be-eynei H' eloheicha " You shall do that which is good and right in the eyes of the Lord your God" (Deut. Ch 12 v 28)

In his final speech to the nation before they enter the promised land, Moses makes the above statement twice within the space of three verses and the same idea is insisted on twice more in the weekly portion RE'EH (Deut.11 v.26 - ch.17 v.17). We nod our heads in agreement, but how clear are weabout the meaning of the statement? We accept that the Torah asks us to do that which is good and right and we assume that The Torah educates us to use our judgment in the matter. We would therefore expect to find this laudable advice by way of introduction or general conclusion or, perhaps together with the injunction, later in the same portion, to be generous to the poor Ch 15, v.7-8 "you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him..". That, however, is not the context in which we find our statement.

Chapter 12 begins "These are the laws (chukkim) and judgments (mishpatim) which you shall observe to do in the land which the Lord God of your fathers gives you to possess it all the days that you live on the land". There follow injunctions to overthrow every heathen place of worship and bring offerings only where we shall be told to, "and there you shall eat before the Lord your God and you will rejoice in all that you put your hand to, you and your households wherein the Lord your God has blessed you (v.18). You shall not do after the things that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes(v.19)". This context would seem to indicate that doing what is right in one's own eyes is the opposite of doing what is right in the eyes of the Lord, which, here is a very specific injunction about idolatry.

Moses goes on to tell us not, under any circumstances, to eat the blood of meat "for the blood is the life; you may not eat the life with the meat (v.23). You shall not eat it, you shall pour it on the earth as water (v.24). You shall not eat it that it may go well with you and with your children after you, for you shall do that which is right in the sight of the Lord"(v.25). The next verses repeat the injunction on sacrifices and pouring out the blood, followed by v.28: "Observe and hear all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you and with your children after you for ever, when you do that which is good and right in the eyes of the Lord". The context, as we see, is again very specific. Doing that which is good and right here means applying the specific laws about not eating blood and bringing the correct sacrifices in the correct place only and it comes under a general heading of laws to be applied in the promised land.

Chapter 13, too, echoes our statement, this time at the end of a chapter which is very specific on the removal of idolatry in the land. If a prophet lures the people to idolatry, prophesying signs and these come about, he is to be put to death; if people succeed in luring a city into idol worship, the city and its inhabitants are to be destroyed by sword and fire " that the Lord may turn from the fierceness of His anger and show you mercy and compassion and multiply you as He swore to your fathers when you will hearken to the voice of the Lord your God to keep all His commandments which I command you this day to do that which is right in the eyes of the Lord your God."(Ch.13 v18-end).

Taken out of context, the injunction to do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord seemed to be a moral statement of a very general kind that could be implemented by an individual. Looking at the statements in their context gives us a very different connotation. The individual's judgment of what is right leads to lawlessness (We see this elsewhere, at the end of the Book of Judges; the account of the repeated backsliding into idol worship and into rebelliousness is summed up in the last verse of that Book ish ha-yashar be-eynav asah, every man did that which was right in his eyes). There is a great deal more to be said on the subject of good and right, as many later commentaries have shown. But in this section of the Torah to do that which is good and right means to obey specific instructions meticulously. The instructions are given to ensure that we maintain our loyalty wholeheartedly and single mindedly to the worship of the Almighty. Ideally, of course, doing that which is right in our own eyes and that which is right in the eyes of the Lord would coincide.