Beyond the Letter of the Law by Avi Hirsch


The Gemara in Bava Metzia (30b) quotes a Baraita that examines a Pasuk in Parashat Yitro in which Yitro instructs Moshe regarding the proper method to teach Bnei Yisrael, “VeHodata Lahem… Et HaMa’aseh Asher Ya’asun,” “And you [Moshe] shall make known to them… the actions that they should do” (Shemot 18:20). The Baraita expounds on the words, “Asher Ya’asun,” “that they should do,” explaining that these words refer to acting Lifnim MiShurat HaDin, above and beyond what is required. Rav Yochanan comments on this exposition that the reason Yerushalayim was destroyed was because its inhabitants did not act beyond the letter of the law; instead, they acted according to strict legal justice. This seems slightly paradoxical. If the Gemara informs us that we must act beyond the letter of the law, then it is no longer beyond the letter of the law! The answer to this might become clearer as we explore the concept of Lifnim MiShurat HaDin further.

One of the many Mitzvot in Parashat Ki Teitzei is the one regarding collateral. When one lends money to another, he often asks the borrower for some sort of security, or collateral, to ensure the eventual return of the borrowed money. If the collateral is a blanket, night garment, etc., and the borrower is poor, the Torah instructs the lender to return the blanket to the debtor every night, because he may need it to sleep. Hashem commands us, “VeIm Ish Ani Hu… Hasheiv Tashiv Lo Et HaAvot KeVo HaShemesh… ULecha Tihyeh Tzedakah Lifnei Hashem Elokecha,” “And if the man is poor… you shall return the security to him when the sun sets… and for you it shall be an act of righteousness before Hashem, your God” (Devarim 24:12-13). What is the phrase “ULecha Tihyeh Tzedakah,” “for you it shall be an act of righteousness,” doing in this context? What is the Torah trying to communicate to us in this phrase? The Torah Temimah answers based on a Gemara in Chulin (134a) that the word “Tzedakah,” “an act of righteousness,” generally refers to acting Lifnim MiShurat HaDin. Since the collateral belongs to the lender until the money is repaid, by returning it to the borrower for the night, the lender is going beyond the letter of the law.

The concept of an action being considered one of “Tzedakah” first appears in Parashat Lech Lecha, immediately before the Brit Bein HaBetarim. The Pasuk states, “VeHe’emin BaShem VaYachsheveha Lo Tzedakah,” “And he [Avram] believed in Hashem, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness” (BeReishit 15:6). To whom does the Pasuk refer in the word “VeYachsheveha,” “And he reckoned it?” Authorities debate the issue. Some, such as Rashi (ad loc. s.v. VaYachsheveha Lo Tzedakah), claim that Hashem reckoned Avram’s Emunah, faith, in Him to be righteous. Others, including Ramban, dispute this, wondering what was so righteous about Avram, a Navi who had just heard Hashem’s promise from Hashem Himself, believing in Hashem. Ramban therefore reads the Pasuk differently. He asserts that it was Avram who considered Hashem to be righteous. After all, before this event, Avram had lost hope of having a son, believing his only heir to be Eliezer, his servant. Therefore, when Hashem told Avram that his heirs would not only be as many as the stars (15:5), but that they would be Avram’s direct descendants (15:4), Avram considered it to be a righteousness. In addition, explains Ramban, Avram did not consider himself worthy of even more divine blessings, especially after his recent miraculous victory over the four kings. In his explanation of the word Tzedakah in this context, the Torah Temimah, who agrees with Ramban as to who is doing the “reckoning” in this Pasuk, is consistent with his opinion in Ki Teitzei. Avram thought Hashem was going above and beyond the strict framework of Din, law. He considered Hashem’s promise to him to be Lifnim MiShurat HaDin.

The term Tzedakah is found once again in Parashat VaYeira, when Hashem is considering revealing his plans for the destruction of Sedom to Avraham. He thinks, “Hamchaseh Ani MeiAvraham Asher Ani Oseh... Ki Yedativ Lema’an Asher Yetzaveh Et Banav VeEt Beito Acharav, VeShameru Derech Hashem, LaAsot Tzedakah UMishpat,” “Shall I hide from Avraham what I am doing… for I have known him, that he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice…” (18:17-19). Here, too, the Torah Temimah explains that the word Tzedakah, righteousness, in contrast with Mishpat, justice, refers to the trait of Lifnim MiShurat HaDin. Hashem recognizes Avraham’s quality of going beyond the letter of the law, a trait which Avraham may have learned to emulate from Hashem after his experience at the Brit Bein HaBetarim. Hashem decides to inform Avraham, the lover of Chesed and the proponent of Lifnim MiShurat HaDin, of His plans to destroy all of the Sedomites. Avraham responds by asking Hashem, “Ha’af Tispeh Tzadik Im Rasha?” “Would You also stamp out the righteous along with the wicked?” (18:23). The people for whom Avraham begs Hashem to save Sedom are referred to in Avraham’s plea as “Tzadikim.” Based on the Torah Temimah’s definition of word “Tzedakah” elsewhere, “Tzadikim” would refer to those who act with the attribute of Lifnim MiShurat HaDin. Thus, Avraham may have actually been asking Hashem to save Sedom if He found within it individuals who act with kindness as opposed to strict legality. There is a concept found in the Gemara of Midat Sedom, the trait of Sedomites. What is this trait? One opinion in Pirkei Avot (5:9) states that those who say, “Sheli Sheli VeShelcha Shelcha,” “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours,” are acting with Midat Sedom. This is the attitude of those who act with pure justice, with no kindness or mercy. The Sedomites were, therefore, the polar opposites of those who act Lifnim MiShurat HaDin! Avraham was pleading with Hashem to save Sedom if He was able to find in it anyone who acted in the opposite manner to the other dwellers in Sedom. If “Tzadikim” were found in it, perhaps they might be able to effect some sort of change in the rest of the city, bringing them back from their Sedomite ways.

Let us now return to our original question. How is it that the Torah can command us to act Lifnim MiShurat HaDin? Isn’t commanding to go beyond the letter of the law an oxymoron? The key to this confusion may lie in the fact that the word “Din” has multiple definitions. So far, I have translated it as it is commonly translated, as “law.” Lifnim MiShurat HaDin, therefore, is “going beyond the letter of the law.” However, it may be possible to translate “Din” instead as justice. As we see in Lech Lecha, VaYeira, and Ki Teitzei, acting Lifnim MiShurat HaDin can be better defined as deciding what to do not based on strict systems of justice, but based on a framework of Chesed, kindness. The model for this principle is, of course, Hashem Himself, who created and governs the world on the basis of both justice and mercy. In Parashat Lech Lecha, Avram considers Hashem’s actions as Lifnim Mishurat HaDin, and in Parashat VaYeira, Hashem considers Avraham to be one who acts Lifnim MiShurat HaDin. In Ki Teitzei, we find the Mitzvah of returning collateral to a poor borrower, one of the many Mitzvot that transform this general principle into concrete law. Legislating compassion may seem misguided and ultimately futile. Why not simply leave that which is beyond justice to the realm of that which is beyond law and allow individual discretion for cases of Lifnim MiShurat HaDin? If we consider the philosophy that since the days of Avraham Avinu represented the antithesis to Judaism, we may learn by comparison. The Midah of Sedom was not merely that compassion was considered unnecessary and irrational. It was not only frowned upon and discouraged; it was outlawed. Chesed was considered dangerous to the Sedomite way of life. When Lot showed hospitality to the visiting angels, a lynch mob quickly formed to prevent any outbreak of Lifnim MiShurat HaDin. Sheli Sheli VeShelcha Shelcha was not just a philosophy; it was the law. It should not be surprising, then, that the opposite Hashkafah is reflected in Jewish law. As in the case of returning the collateral, the minimum standard in Halachah goes well beyond the minimum standard of pure justice because that is what being Jewish is all about. At the same time, the law is still only the minimum level from which we are to model the rest of our behavior. Beyond Halachah, the principle of Lifnim MiShurat HaDin is a constant moral obligation to act, like Hashem and Avraham, not with justice alone, but with compassion as well.

The Gemara in Yevamot (79a) states that the Jewish people have three inherent character traits, one of which is Chesed, kindness. The Gemara’s source for this particular trait is the Pasuk in Parashat VaYeira (18:19) in which Hashem testifies that He knows that Avraham will teach his descendants to act with Tzedakah and Mishpat. The centrality of Lifnim Meshurat HaDin in Judaism is further supported by Rashi, who comments on this Pasuk (ad loc. s.v. Ki Yedativ) that the word “Yedativ,” literally, “I [Hashem] have known him,” also has a connotation of “Chibah,” “love.” Hashem loved Avraham precisely because he personifies the twin concepts of acting with justice and going beyond justice. And because of Hahsem’s love for Avraham, the entire Jewish people descended from him. This interpretation places the trait of Lifnim Meshurat HaDin above all other Midot, as it is the reason for the existence of the Jewish people. Is it any wonder, then, that when the Jews began to act by the rules of strict justice and abandoned the very trait that defined their Jewishness, Yerushalayim was destroyed?

Many times in our own lives, we find ourselves in situations in which we can sacrifice a little of ourselves and have a profound impact on another. We must try to refrain from acting with Midat Sedom, and instead choose to emulate the ways of Hashem by acting Lifnim MiShurat HaDin. In that Zechut, may we see the completion of the rebuilding of Yerushalayim, BiMheirah VeYameinu.

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