Va’etchanan: The Good and the Just
When I was younger, I visited Boston every so often, especially during the Chagim. When in Boston, I would pray in the Young Israel of Brookline, alongside someone who set himself as a leader to American Jewry. This was not some famous rabbi, orator, or celebrity; his name was Aaron Feuerstein, and he was one of the first Americans to lead the way on what it means to be an American-born orthodox lay leader, leading by example of honesty. 1995 Aron Feuerstein’s Malden Mills, the largest textile plant in America, located in Lawrence, Massachusetts, burned down.
The next morning Aaron got up in front of the cameras, reporters, and his 3000 workers and informed them that he would be paying all of their salaries in full—out of his pocket—for the next 60 days so that they could get the money they deserve and have a chance to try and find another job and feed their families. The move shocked the New England area and the global business community.
This is not the only example. My great great aunt’s husband, Louis Raskas, and his family, pioneers of American orthodoxy, were known for their honesty and exacting measurements in their business, the Raskas Dairy Farms in St. Louis, inspired by his years of studying in Radin, under the tutelage of the great Chafetz Chaim who wrote several books about the need for honesty in business.
While these pioneers show us the way and should be glorified for what they have done, that is not the kind of PR we should be seeking–let me explain.
The Torah tells us in this week’s Parsha: “And you shall do what is proper and good in the eyes of the Lord, so that it may be well with you, and that you may come and possess the good land which the Lord swore to your forefathers .”(Dvarim 6)
Rabbi Moses Nachmanides famously comments on this verse that it is more than a technical commandment on ethics. While the Torah gives us many commandments on how to conduct ourselves ethically, no number of commandments can cover all real-life scenarios unless we have a deep commitment to doing what is “proper and good” we can be highly unethical people, even while adhering to the strictest interpretation of the letter of the law. “Naval Birshut Hatora–a depraved person in the realm of the Torah,” as the Rambam refers to such a person. While this is a overarching commenadment, it is even codified into Jewish law, most famously in the Talmudic case of Bar Metzra (Bava Metzia 108), in which case a person selling a property is compelled to sell the property to the person who shares a border with it so that they can expand their own territory.
And yet, this is not the one commandment we are asked to be known by in this week’s Parsha.
The Torah famously says (Dvarim 4:6): “And you shall keep [them] and do [them], for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who will hear all these statutes and say, “Only this great nation is a wise and understanding people. “
There is no question that the words in this verse are one of the greatest and most openly fulfilled prophecies ever. This is evident in the adoption of Jewish principles by a majority of the world–Christians and Muslims–and, as Harvard professor Eric Nelsen points out, this book is very much at the foundation of the formation of democracies.
And yet the question begs to be asked: why is it this verse that we should be blessed to be admired for acting with wisdom rather than for being praised for acting with honesty? Where is the verse promising that if we follow what is right and good, the nations of the world will praise our honesty and integrity?
The answer is that honesty must begin and end in the eyes of God–not in the eyes of humans. We cannot be honest, noble, or have integrity for PR purposes. It does not work. When it comes to doing what is right, we must never have ulterior motives. Sure, the Torah commands us also to avoid anything with even the appearance of impropriety, even if it is honest to God, yet being honest as an act of PR will never work. Integrity is between us and God ve’sof hakavod lavo–and the honor might come on its own in the end. When it comes to honesty, we must follow our own internal and intimate compass.
This week we read Nachamu Nachamu Ami. The Midrash teaches us that God Almighty first sent to consol His people by using prophets and emissaries, and the Jewish people refused to accept any message of comfort until God himself said, “Nachamu, Nachamu–Yomar Elokechem,” your own God says. When trauma strikes hardest, sometimes it is not about the PR; it is about what is private. I am reminded of the story I heard from an Israeli rabbi, Rabbi Aaron Levi, who asked his grandmother, that survived the Holocaust: “Grandma, how come you never try to take revenge on the Germans?”
She looked at him and said: “winners, my dear, do not take revenge. I have children, grandchildren, and a life that I love. That is my revenge.”
Her answer was not the answer of one person; it was the answer of a generation. A generation who has witnessed and been the victim of the worst crime committed in human history and had every pretext for revenge and a life of violence. Yet they went on to be the most glorious generation in the history of our people, going on to build families, synagogues, schools, Yeshivot, new communities, libraries, hospitals, museums, Kibbutzim, Yishuvim, cities, and a state for the Jewish people. Nachamu Nachamu Ami. Like honesty, consolation can only come from the inside, from who we truly are, from the communities and families we build, and the worthy lives that we lead.
May we be blessed on this Shabbat Nachamu to continue the work of this greatest generation to build, to love, to continue the dream of the lay leaders and pioneers of American Jewry, Holocaust survivors, and those whose integrity and virtue must continue to inspire future generations. Shabbat Shalom.