Being Good Is Not Good Enough

לָקֹ֗חַ אֵ֣ת סֵ֤פֶר הַתּוֹרָה֙ הַזֶּ֔ה וְשַׂמְתֶּ֣ם אֹת֔וֹ מִצַּ֛ד אֲר֥וֹן בְּרִית־יי אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם וְהָיָה־שָׁ֥ם בְּךָ֖ לְעֵֽד׃

Take this book of the Torah and place it at the side of the Ark of the Covenant of Hashem, your God, and it shall be there for you as a witness.

–Deuteronomy 31:26

Rabbi Simlai taught that the Torah begins and ends with acts of kindness. [1] The Hebrew word for “kindness” is “חסד – chesed,” which is also the root of the word for piety – “חסידות – chassidus.” A simple interpretation of Rabbi Simlai’s words, and the linguistic relationship between “kindness” and “piety” (religiosity), is that spiritual greatness comes from people acting kindly in the world, and that is the ultimate purpose of the Torah itself.

In the Kabbalistic work Shaarei Orah, Rabbi Yosef Giqatillah [2] explains that God didn’t create this world from a place of filling a void, but from “the side of total kindness; to benefit God’s creations – ולא מצד שהיה חסר כלום אלא ברא את העולם מצד החסד הגמור, להיטיב עם ברואיו.” He offers support for this idea that God created the world out of an overabundance of loving kindness [3] from King David’s declaration “עולם חסד יבנה – the world is built from [a motivation of] kindness.” [4]

Building this world is an ongoing process that requires a deep reflection on the imperfect foundations of our society, in partnership with implementing the renovations necessary to remodel the world in kindness. While each person has their own unique expertise to contribute to the global infrastructure of goodness, without extensive learning about the nuances and complexities of systemic change, piety is impossible. Our Rabbis teach “וְלֹא עַם הָאָרֶץ חָסִיד – an unlearned person can’t be pious,” [5] because true kindness requires an advanced understanding of the particular needs of another and the sophisticated discernment to know how best to respond.

The Ramchal, in The Path of the Just, writes: “נמצא כלל החסידות הרחבת קיום כל המצות בכל הצדדין והתנאים שראוי ושאפשר – The general principle of piety is to expand the fulfillment of all the mitzvot, in all sides and conditions which are proper and possible.” [6] Being good is not good enough. Expanding goodness, until the world is completely fixed, is the quest of the devout.

“Who is pious (chassid)?” asks the Zohar. [7] “One who is benevolent (hamischassid) with their Maker – אֵיזֶהוּ חָסִיד הַמִּתְחַסֵּד עִם קוֹנוֹ.” Co-creating the world today requires the altruistic intention that informed God’s motivation originally. When we are kind to each other, because God is kind, we reflect God’s attribute as a giver – to each other and also back to God.

So how does the Torah, which contains the details of our relationship with God, act as witness? First, due to its location. It is placed in the Ark of the Covenant from the side – מִצַּ֛ד אֲר֥וֹן בְּרִית. There is a disagreement in the Talmud [8] whether the actual Torah is situated on the inside or outside of the ark. In the mystical tradition, while the ark contains the physical scroll as a witness to the Torah’s contents, the ark’s actual purpose is to eliminate any containment. Rather than being limited to a finite space, the Torah projects an universal expectation of proficient benignity. [9] 

Second, due to its constant use and applicability. “Take this book of the Torah – לָקֹ֗חַ אֵ֣ת סֵ֤פֶר הַתּוֹרָה֙” is instructing us to bring the teachings with us, not to leave it on the shelf. The final commandment of the Torah [10] is for the Torah itself to be written and taught, which naturally includes all of the other commandments as well, modeling the process of exponentially connecting everything to each other. This is alluded to in the observation that “Take this book of the Torah – לָקֹ֗חַ אֵ֣ת סֵ֤פֶר הַתּוֹרָה֙” has the same numerical value of each of the 22 Hebrew letters, that form the Torah, added together. [11]

Extending connections of goodness between people (חבר) is a powerful tool of expanding (רחב) our proximity towards God’s eternal affection for humanity. Building a world from love is a collaborative effort that begins with a foundation in our hearts. Acts of kindness are the vessels that enable the Divine care we have for each other to be revealed and transform the world.

 [1] Sotah 14a: Rabbi Simlai taught: With regard to the Torah, its beginning is an act of kindness and its end is an act of kindness. Its beginning is an act of kindness, as it is written: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). And its end is an act of kindness, as it is written: “And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 34:6).
[2] Medieval Spain (c.1260 – c.1300 CE).
[3] Seventh Gate Fourth Sefira.
[4] Psalm 89:3.
[5] Avos 2:5.
[6] Chapter 18.
[7] Mishpatim 6:380.
[8] Bava Basra 14a.
[9] See Recantain Terumah 4 on the shift from aron to adon.
[10] See Sefer HaChinuch mitzvah 613.
[11] Chamra Tava. Both equal 1495.
Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is the Scholar-in-Residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. He is a deeply traditional and radically progressive advocate for trans rights and a vocal ally for LGBTQ inclusivity.
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