Va'eschanan: The Law Beyond the Law
By Rabbi Yonah Burr
After going through another round of three weeks, nine days and Tisha B’av, especially after these unprecedented five months, I find myself yearning for the Geula more than ever. Although it is hard for us to truly comprehend the tragedy of not having the Shechina and Beis Hamikdash in our midst, this much we do know; all suffering and hardship that we endure both on an individual level, and collective level would be no more. Hashem would shine His Countenance upon us, and we would experience only blessing.
What can we do to hasten our redemption and draw the Divine Presence closer once again? A possuk in this week’s Parsha gives the answer:
ועשית הישר והטוב בעיני ד' למען ייטב לך ובאת וירשת את הארץ הטבה אשר נשבע ד' לאבתיך
And you shall do what is fair and good in the eyes of Hashem, so that it will be good for you, and you shall come and possess the good Land that Hashem swore to your forefathers. (6:18)
The Gemara in Bava Metzia tells us: לא חרבה ירושלים אלא על שדנו בה דין תורה – Jerusalem was destroyed because we held each other accountable to the letter of the law. The Torah wants us to extend ourselves towards each other beyond the actual letter of the law, rising above petty strife, to be able to live together in peace and harmony.
The Gemara relates three stories of Sages who conducted themselves beyond the letter of the law. The first involves the great Rav Yishmael the son of Rav Yossi. There was once a man who was carrying a load of wood. After some time, the man laid the wood down to rest, and when he was ready to continue his journey, he discovered that he would need help to reload. Just then, Rav Yishmael passed by. Now, Rav Yishmael realized that it would seem out of place for him to appear publicly shlepping large pieces of wood, and he was indeed technically exempt from getting involved due to his stature. However, not wanting to leave the man struggling, Rav Yishmael paid him for the entire load, and then left the wood for the taking. The man immediately took the wood for himself, and again asked Rav Yishmael for help! Rav Yishmael purchased the wood a second time, and again left it there for the taking. This time Rav Yishmael convinced the man not to retake the wood, and the issue was resolved with all parties happy.
Another incident: Shmuel’s father once found a herd of donkeys that seemed to have been lost for some time. As the owner would presumably have despaired by then, anyone could legally take them. Nevertheless, Shmuel’s father brought the donkeys in, cared for them, and returned them to their rightful owner -- beyond the letter of the law.
Finally, perhaps the most extraordinary incident of all: Raba the son of Chana once hired some movers to transport his barrels of wine. The workers were a bit reckless, and tried to carry double the load at once. Lo and behold, the barrels smashed, upon which Raba quickly seized a garment of theirs to expediate his claim. They went before the great Rav to judge the case. Surprisingly, Rav encouraged Raba to waive his claim. “But Rav! Is this the Halacha?” asked Raba. Rav replied, “Yes, for someone as great as you, this is indeed the halacha. We need to go beyond the letter of the law”. Raba waived his claim. Then the workers asked, “but we spent the whole day working, and are not receiving any pay?” So Rav encouraged Raba to give them their full wage!
Tosfos explains that these three stories actually reflect three levels of piety. The first level, the story involving Rav Yishmael with the load, encourages us not to seek exemptions for ourselves. This is basic. Everyone needs to help, and even if it would be awkward or out of place for us, we need to find a way to make it work. The second level, returning items even after the owner long despaired, is a higher level, doing something that no one is obligated to do. But on the other hand, it costs us nothing. The third level, obviously the highest, is to extend ourselves for the other person, putting them first, even at our own expense.
The Torah wants us to keep the mitzvos, allowing them to transform us into super nice people; people whose priorities are other people, and not merely possessions. This outlook and attitude will surely help us rise above pettiness, and merit the Shechina to reside among us!