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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shoftim: Two kinds of righteousness
These words are dedicated to the loving memory of Bella "Bubbie" Hoffman (Baila bat Shmiel) on her yohrzeit (19th Sivan).
Every individual shall make himself a judge and officer to ensure that he follows the commandments of the Torah. Why does the Torah use such a strong expression that one shall pursue righteousness rather than merely instructing us to do acts of righteousness? One must always take into consideration how one's actions are viewed by others. The Halachic authorities often prohibit particular acts since they may appear to others as a transgression of a Torah commandment. We may never base our lifestyle on the concept "this is what everybody does". Our every act must be correct and beautiful, both in our own eyes and in the eyes of those around us. When the Torah instructs us to judge our fellow beings in righteousness, it includes an obligation, as individuals, to give other people the benefit of the doubt. If we follow the Torah's instructions in our daily life, we will live in peace with ourselves and the people around us.
Appoint for you
This week's parasha starts with the words (Devarim 16:18): "You shall appoint for you judges and officers in all your gates [of your cities]". The expression "for you" seems to be redundant. It would have been sufficient had it said "you shall appoint judges and officers in all your gates". Rabbi Yeshaya Horovitz, better known as "the Shelo'h", explains that this comes to hint that every individual shall make himself a judge and officer to ensure that he follows the commandments of the Torah.
A little later (ibid 20) it says: "Righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue." Our sages question why does the Torah repeat the word "righteousness"? And we may add, why does the Torah use such a strong expression that one shall pursue righteousness rather than merely instructing us to do acts of righteousness?
Beautiful in the eyes of others
We may be able to answer these questions with the words of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (2:1). The Mishnah asks: "Which is the correct way that a person should choose for himself?" The Mishnah answers: "Anything that is beautiful in the eyes of the one who does it, and is beautiful in the eyes of his fellow beings." The Mishnah here teaches us a very fundamental lesson for life. It is not sufficient that a person knows that what he is doing is right. One must always take into consideration how one's actions are viewed by others.
Appearance of transgression prohibited
This is why the Halachic authorities often prohibit particular acts since they may appear to others as a transgression of a Torah commandment. There is a dual reason for this. First of all, a person should not put himself into a situation where others would suspect that he is doing something wrong. Secondly, we should always keep in mind that whatever we do others will take example from and may emulate what they think we are doing. In this way, the Torah educates us to be responsible, not only for our own personal acts, but also for our influence on others.
Not "what everybody does"
However, our actions should never be guided only by the opinions of others. We must always make sure that our acts are correct, and that at any time we can justify what we do. We may never base our lifestyle on the concept "this is what everybody does". This applies to every aspect of our lives: where we go out to eat and how we dress; how we conduct our business, as well as our moral and ethical values. The Torah has rules and guidelines for every detail of our lives that we must learn and adhere to, rather than flowing along with contemporary society.
Be correct and beautiful
This is what the Mishnah says. Our every act must be correct and beautiful, both in our own eyes and in the eyes of those around us. This may be one of the lessons that the Torah here teaches us with the double expression of "righteousness". It is not sufficient for a person to do something that is righteous in his own eyes, if he knows that it appears to others to be wrong. On the other hand, the excuse that it is righteous in the eyes of the society in which he lives is not acceptable if a person knows that this is not what G'd wants him to do. This lifestyle is not always easy, but the Torah obligates us to pursue it in full measure.
Benefit of the doubt
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 32b) compares the above verse with what it says in Parashas Kedoshim (Vayikra 19:15): "You shall judge your fellow with righteousness." The Talmud questions why over there the Torah neither repeats the word "righteousness" nor uses the expression of "pursuing". If we follow the above homiletical interpretation of the meaning of pursuing "righteousness" we can explain the difference between the two verses in the following way. In this week's parasha the Torah is instructing us to pursue righteousness in our own actions and ensure that we are correct in what we do and that it appears likewise in the eyes of others. We may not rely on that the people who see our actions should give us the benefit of the doubt, and as such it is their problem if they suspect us of doing something wrong. On the other hand, in Parashas Kedoshim, the Torah instructs us how to judge the acts of our fellow beings. The Talmud (Shavuous 30b) explains that when the Torah instructs us to judge our fellow beings in righteousness, it includes an obligation, as individuals, to give other people the benefit of the doubt. This is what the Mishnah says in Pirkei Avos (1:6): "And you shall judge every person favourably." The Chofetz Chaim explains that this refers even to a person that we do not know. We shall always assume that people only have good intentions. This obviously does not include someone who is known to be a wicked person.
Live in peace
If we follow the Torah's instructions in our daily life, we will live in peace with ourselves and the people around us. As King Solomon says, when he describes the Torah way of life (Mishlei 3:17): "Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace." This is what the Torah continues to say in this week's parasha: "Righteousness, righteousness, you shall pursue, so that you will live and inherit the land that HASHEM your G'd gives you." It is up to us to internalize the Torah's instructions and lessons. Then we will merit to live in peace in the Holy Land that G'd has promised us.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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