The first relates to Deuteronomy 12:28 “Observe and hear all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you… when you do what is good and right in the eyes of YHVH your God.” The simple meaning of the verse, like many others in Deuteronomy, is to encourage keeping the commandments despite the difficulties involved.
Are “the good” and “the right” synonyms or do they represent different concepts? Many traditional sources quote a disagreement between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael, in which Rabbi Akiva states, “Good in God’s eyes and right in human eyes,” while Rabbi Ishmael says opposite. The disagreement is a bit strange because the verse is quite clear, “in the eyes of YHVH your God.”
However, it does point towards a difference in the human and divine perspectives. Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein in the Torah Temimah develops the idea and explains, “Something that is incomplete cannot be called ‘good’ even if it seems good at the beginning. Therefore, things that seem good to us can only be called ‘right,’ because calling them ‘good’ requires knowing the future, which is beyond human capabilities.”
To this Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz adds, “We must consider this seriously because many people who certainly had good and pure motives have done harm to themselves and those around them…” I do not know when he wrote this and to whom he was referring but there is no doubt that this does happen.
Therefore, we must act cautiously, taking the longest, broadest perspective we can manage; it behooves us to proceed cautiously because we lack a divine perspective as to the final results of our efforts.
However, taking due caution must not prevent us from taking an active role in the world, as we can learn from Chapter 15, where we find two opposite statements about the future socioeconomic situation. In verse 4 it says, “There shall be no poor among you,” but in verse 11, “and the poor shall never cease.” Some of the information necessary to resolve the contradiction is found within the same section, “You shall surely give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; because therefore YHVH your God will bless you in all your work (verse 10).”
Does this mean that elimination of poverty is a reward that God grants for keeping his commandments?
I think not. There is a blessing in keeping the commandments but the end of poverty is not a prize, but rather a direct result of keeping the commandments that are enumerated in this chapter and elsewhere: tithes, agricultural gifts to the poor, sabbatical years, including the needy in holiday celebrations etc. We may not wait for a heavenly solution for problems when the necessary tools have been placed at our doorstep. We need to pick up the tools and use them.
In immediate situations of crisis, the commandment is clear and can be implemented as written: “If there be among you a needy person, one of your brethren, in any of your gates, in your land which Adonai your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand… (verse 7).” However the large-scale tools, the Bible’s systemic solutions, like the sabbatical year and agricultural gifts, need to be adapted to modern economies. Leibowitz addresses this in another article: “The reality of recent generations is one that the classic Jewish tradition could not have anticipated. All of our social, economic and political problems require new thinking.
Note the word “require.” We have an obligation to deal with the problems, to make an effort to eliminate poverty and close social gaps, we cannot ignore suffering or postpone difficult questions to a more convenient time. The ways of dealing with these problems must be clarified in civil and political frameworks, without whitewash or prejudice. The Torah commands that gifts be left for the poor during every harvest – meaning during every production cycle – while tithes and sabbatical years occur at regular intervals. We, too, must make the effort necessary to bring God’s blessings into the world even when there seem to be constraints that might justify a postponement.
Kehillat Hod Vehadar 2012