By Rabbi Mordechai Levin
We are commanded in the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:18): “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you.” We may ask ourselves: What does it mean to do what is right and good? What kind of behavior is expected from us?
A story I recently read may help us find the answer. A fire broke out at Malden Mills – a textile company – in Massachusetts in 1995. Showing loyalty to his 2,400 workers, owner and CEO Aaron Feuerstein decided to continue paying them for 90 days and extended their health benefits at a cost of $1.5 million per week while the factories were being rebuilt. In the end, he paid out $25 million.
A reporter asked him why he continued to pay his workers, and he answered: “I did it because it was the right thing to do.” He added: “I lost 10 million dollars in that fire and that hurt, believe me, it hurt, but, after I lost 10 million, I still had sixty million left. These workers lost everything they had. And knowing that, I couldn’t let them down.”
Some might have said that the proper decision was to take the $300 million in insurance and retire. “And what would I do with it? Eat more? Buy another suit? Retire and die,” asks Feuerstein. “No, that did not go into my mind.”
He grew up in a Jewish family where Judaism helped formulate his beliefs about how to behave. “Judaism gives you a complete and thorough ethical framework within which you and your family can live,” he explained. “You are not permitted to oppress the working man, because he’s poor and he’s needy.”
President Clinton invited Feuerstein to the State of the Union Address as an honored guest. He also received 12 honorary degrees. One year later, business and community leaders gathered in Phoenix to watch Feuerstein receive the Lincoln Award for Ethics and Excellence in Business, sponsored by The Economic Club of Phoenix.
That day, Feuerstein finished his speech quoting from the Hebrew Bible (Jeremiah 9:23-24): “Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know Me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.”
Jewish commentators of the Torah explain that the verse “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord” means going above and beyond the letter of the law in helping others and serving God. The law can only legislate the minimum behavior required for basic functioning. The principle beyond the requirements of the law is known in Hebrew as “Lifnim Mishurat Hadin.”
One who behaves toward other people with only the barest respect or who will only contribute the minimum amount possible for charity may be fulfilling the basics required by Jewish law and ethics. But he or she can surely do better.
We are called to extend ourselves beyond the requirements of the law in our daily interactions with our fellow men. In the words of the Torah (Deuteronomy 12:28): “Be careful to obey all these words that I command you today, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, because you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God.”
We may all know some people who in some way or another “do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord”. Hopefully, this principle will guide our lives, too.