Wednesday, August 27, 2014

v'asisa ha'yashar v'hatov vs. ta'aseh ha'tov v'hayashar

At the end of chapter 2 of Orot Teshuvah Rav Kook writes that the “tov v’yashar” of G-d which permeates the universe acts as a magnet that causes the “yasahr v’tov” within the individual to resonate in concert, causing the individual to want to remove the barriers of sin that separate and isolate.  In R’ Ya’akov Filber’s notes (sorry, I don’t know of an online version to link to) he points out the subtle inversion of one phrase: in speaking about G-d, Rav Kook says “tov v’yashar;” in speaking about man, he says “yashar v’tov.”  It’s not by accident.  We find the switch in Tanach, as with respect to G-d the pasuk says, “Tov v’yashar Hashem…,” but with respect to man, “Elokin asah es ha’adam yashar…” and “v’asisa ha’yashar v’hatov.”  I don’t fully understand R’ Filber’s explanation, but as best as I can muster what he suggests is that G-d is inherently good; ethics and justice are results of that goodness -- yashar follows from tov.  However, the same cannot be said of mankind.  If we behave justly and ethically, it establishes us as tov -- tov follows from yashar, but not the other way around, as we are not inherently a source of goodness.

The monkey wrench in all this is the pasuk in last week’s parsha, “…ki ta’aseh hatov v’hayashar b’eini Hashem Elokecha.” (12:28)  Why here does the Torah put tov before yashar?  Rav Filber notes this problem in parenthesis and just says “yesh l’chaleik” but offers no hint as to what he had in mind.

I found the Ksav Sofer asks this question.  The pasuk in Va’Eschanan, “v’asisa hayashar v’hatov,” tells us the ideal of not only doing right, “yashar,” but going “lifnim m’shuras hadin,” doing “tov.”  One might be tempted to simply aim to do right – there is no requirement, after all, to go above and beyond the letter of the law.  Yet, the Torah knows human psychology and recognizes that this approach is doomed to failure.  As I tell my children all the time, if you aim to give 100%, you probably will end up with something like 75%.  It’s giving 125% that will give you 100%.  We all fall short of what we aim for – that’s life.  The pasuk in Re’eh tells us “ki ta’aseh ha’tov,” if you aim to go above and beyond the letter of the law and strive for tov, “v'hayashar b’eini Hashem Elokecha,” then you will at least end up fulfilling the letter of the law in G-d’s eyes.

My wife suggested another answer on Shabbos that I really like and that is perfect for inyana d’yoma.  The pasuk in Va’Eschanan that speaks of “yashar v’tov” is addressing the individual.  On a personal level, one is obligated to give first priority to acting ethically toward others, even if that doesn’t make things “tov” or easy for oneself.  The pasuk in Parshas Re’eh is speaking to the nation, and in particular note the pesukim that follow speak of the conquest of Eretz Yisrael.  In that context we are obligated to first do that which is “tov,” that which is good for our needs as a people.  What is yashar in the eyes of the world is a secondary concern, as the Jew-haters out there will never be satisfied, no matter how careful and ethical our behavior is.


  1. Expanding on your rebbetzin's approach: "Tov" - what's good for Klal Yisroel; "Yashar" - shoot straight.

  2. I wish someone would use this discussion to shed light on the Machlokes R Akiva and R Yishmael in the Sifri,
    כי תעשה הטוב והישר, הטוב בעיני השמים והישר בעיני אדם דברי רבי עקיבא, רבי ישמעאל אומר הישר בעיני אדם והטוב בעיני שמים, וכן הוא אומר ומצא חן ושכל טוב בעיני אלקים ואדם
    Sure, you have the Maharal and the Malbim and the Torah Temima and Nechama Leibowitz and the modern "Universalist/Particularist" critics and on and on. I'm still waiting for a good and simple pshat, like greatUnknown told us about the fundamental worldview machlokes Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel from the Malbim.