A phrase that I must have heard a thousand times in my years in Australia is “Do the Right Thing.” It was used nearly everywhere by nearly everyone: from sports to business to personal life. I was told more times than I care to recall that the Middle East would be a better and safer place if “everybody would just do the Right Thing”. “The Right Thing” was rarely specified and it always remained vague and undefined. I was never sure what the “Right Thing” was. I’m not sure anyone was sure what it was.

When someone would tell me that he had “done the Right Thing”, I often remembered a conversation that I had on an airplane about twenty years ago. I was sitting next to a religious Christian woman and we were discussing theology. Both of us took our religion very seriously and it was interesting to see what effect it had had on our lives. After a while I figured we were close enough so that I could ask her a question that had always bothered me: As a Jew I am bound by the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot in the Torah. What bounded her? While I knew that Christianity had pretty much abandoned ritual, I wanted to know if there were any rules or regulations according to which she led her life. She answered that she always tried to be “Christlike”. When I asked her if she could be more specific, she spoke about being kind and loving her neighbour. Well, those are two of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot. Was there anything else? What I understood at the end of our conversation was that opposed to being a specific commandment, “being Christlike” was an overarching principle that was supposed to be reflected into everything that she did. Sort of like “doing the Right Thing”.

The casual reader might believe that I am denigrating my erstwhile Christian companion. Nothing could be farther from the truth. She has some very firm ground to stand upon. Let me explain: Parashat VaEtchanan is the second part of a three-part exhortation that Moshe gives to Am Yisrael the week before his death. The exhortation contains some historical reminiscing, numerous calls to heed the Torah, and every here and there a mitzvah is thrown in for good measure. Towards the end of the Parasha Moshe tells Am Yisrael [Devarim 6:17-18] “You shall surely keep the mitzvot of Hashem and His precepts and his supra-logical commandments (chukim) that He commands you. You shall do what is right and good in the eyes of Hashem”. “Right and good”? Doesn’t that sound a lot like “Do the Right Thing”? How do we do this? Rashi suggests that it means that a person should strive to live his life “lifnim mishurat ha’din” – beyond the letter of the law. He should not live “on the ragged edge of halacha”, but, rather, he should put distance between himself and sin. Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein, writing in “Baruch She’Amar”, his commentary on Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), asserts that the entire Pirkei Avot is a primer in lifnim mishurat ha’din.

While Rashi’s commentary leaves us well and truly in “Do the Right Thing” territory, the Ramban takes us even deeper. The Ramban first brings Rashi’s explanation, and then, eerily echoing my Christian companion, he suggests that as the Torah cannot be summarized by any finite number of mitzvot, a person must always strive to do the Right Thing. This rule is especially pertinent in business and politics, when dealing with others according to a well-defined but incomplete set of rules. The Ramban stresses that “doing the Right Thing” is an overarching principle that must be reflected into everything that we do.

Boy, does that ever sound familiar.

I read the Ramban over and over and it just rubbed me the wrong way. Last week, my wife and I took two days off to attend “Yemei Iyun BaTanach” – “Tanach Days” – a week-long series of shiurim on Tanach given at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. The shiurim are given by the best lecturers and are attended by more than fifteen hundred people each day[1]. Each year we try to attend Yemei Iyun for a day and this year we extended it to two days. This was fortunate for us, because on the second day we heard the most amazing shiur, given by Rav Chaim Sabatto. It was essentially a primer in the enumeration of the mitzvot[2]. Rav Sabatto addressed a number of questions, including how to determine what is and what isn’t a mitzvah[3], when and when not to break down one commandment into multiple mitzvot[4], and whether or not the Torah really contains six hundred and thirteen mitzvot[5]. While a comprehensive summary of Rav Sabatto’s shiur is beyond the scope of this shiur, one could not listen to Rab Sabatto and not be struck by the importance that Judaism has always given to each individual mitzvah. How is it possible that the Torah would include an amorphous commandment to “do the Right Thing”?

The answer is that there is a tremendous difference between the words of the Ramban and those of my Christian associate. The Ramban believes that the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot of the Torah are not rich enough to fully delineate a person’s actions. There exist certain “gaps” between mitzvot, such that a “gap-filler” is required. “Do the Right Thing” is this gap-filler. That is to say, if a person finds himself in a situation in which his required response does not clearly appear in the Torah, then he should act according to “Do the Right Thing”. Further, the actions he should take in such a situation should be extrapolated from explicit mitzvot in the Torah. If I were in a similar situation, what would the Torah have me do? Christianity, on the other hand, has nearly completely excised the mitzvot from the Torah. In Christian theology, “Doing the Right Thing” is not a gap-filler, it is a replacement. Their entire Torah can essentially be boiled down to “Do the Right Thing”. Further, because of a profound lack of explicit mitzvot, it is often exceedingly difficult to define precisely what “the Right Thing” is in any given situation.

Even after understanding the intention of the Ramban, I still felt a bit uneasy. Thanks to Rav Sabatto, I had just become a fervent fan of six hundred and thirteen mitzvot and I was still having problem with “meta-mitzvot”. And then the Talmud came along and made me feel a whole lot better. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Metzia [108a] discusses the principle of “bar matzra”. The case pertains to a person who wants to sell a plot of land. Assuming that this person has two potential buyers who are willing to pay him equal sums of money with equal terms and conditions, precedence is given to a person who happens to already own property adjacent to the property for sale. The logic is “Why not make this guy’s life easier?” If such a buyer exists and the property is still sold to someone else then the sale is ruled null and void. The Talmud teaches that the source for this principle is none other than “Do the Right Thing”. To my great satisfaction, this means that “Do the Right Thing” is as well-defined and as actionable as any other mitzvah.

Life is a mosaic of individual mitzvot. And if we need a little glue here and there, so be it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Adi bat Ravit.

[1] The fact that numerous other “Yemei Iyun Ba’Tanach” have been popping up all around the country over the past few years attests to the success of this project. Imitation is the highest form of praise.

[2] Rav Sabatto could read the phone book and most people would find it intriguing, but this shiur was especially good. Rav Sabatto gave this particular shiur as he will shortly be publishing an enumeration of the mitzvot from Rav Sa’adya Gaon, based on previously unreleased manuscripts.

[3] For instance, when the Torah tells Am Yisrael at the Red Sea [Shemot 14:13]”You shall never see [Egyptians] ever again”, was it speaking factually, because they were all about to be drowned, or is there a commandment not to visit Egypt?

[4] For instance, is the prohibition of doing work on Yom Tov one general commandment or three separate commandments (not to do work on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot)?

[5] It is not at all clear. The source for the torah containing six hundred and thirteen mitzvot comes from a gematriya, not a typical source for this type of thing (see the Talmud in Tractate Makkot [23b]). While the Rambam, probably the most famous of the enumerators, enumerates six hundred and thirteen mitzvot, other enumerators (such as the BaHaG) do not.