Here’s this week’s emphasis in Mussar, the Jewish discipline of character development. Even if you’re already a character, you should check out more at www.rivertonmussar.org.
Our Messiah warned us, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20). We often interpret that sentence as if the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees were defective, but Yeshua might be saying the opposite: “Unless your righteousness is even better than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never make it into the kingdom of heaven.” Such words must have filled the original hearers with despair. How can I be more righteous than a Pharisee—especially if I’m a simple Galilean farmer or fisherman or wife and mother?
Before our imagined Galileans (or we ourselves) despair, however, we should ask what “righteousness” means. In Cheshbon ha-Nefesh, Rabbi Mendel provides a simple definition, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” This definition, in turn, is an expansion of the words of Torah, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Righteousness means simply acting according to this standard, treating others as we would want to be treated.
Righteousness in Hebrew is tzedakah, a word many of us learned at an early age when we were taught to put some money in a pushke to share with those in need. I remember my Shabbat school teacher when I was eight or ten telling us that tzedakah didn’t mean charity, but righteousness or justice. We didn’t share just because we had noble feelings of compassion for the poor, but rather because it was the right thing to do, because we should treat our needy neighbor the same way we’d want to be treated ourselves.
Abraham exemplifies this tzedakah. The Lord appears to him on his way to Sodom, to see if it is worthy of destruction for its wickedness, and decides to let Abraham in on his plans, “For I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing tzedakah and justice; so that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen. 18:19). Abraham is the bearer of righteousness, who will act righteously and pass on this legacy to his heirs. True to this righteousness, when Abraham learns that God intends to destroy the wicked Sodomites, he tries to talk him out of it. “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor,” or, as Yeshua put it, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Mat. 7:12). If you would not want your neighbor to piously shake his head and say “the Lord’s will be done,” if he learned, God forbid, that you were liable for divine punishment, then don’t act that way toward your neighbor. If you hear of something bad coming his way—even if he appears to deserve it—do everything in your power to help ward it off.
Since Abraham is righteous, the Lord knows that he will be concerned with the fate of his neighbors in Sodom, despite their wickedness. As Abraham begins his negotiations on behalf of Sodom, he tries not to be so pushy that he aggravates the Lord, but it’s not hard to imagine that the Lord told Abraham his plans in the hope that he would try to talk him out of them . . . for that’s what a righteous person should do in such a case.
So, when Messiah tells us that our righteousness must be even better than that of the scribes and Pharisees, he is pointing us back to the righteousness of our father Abraham. Abraham’s righteousness is better than that of the Pharisees because it’s not expressed in theoretical or pious terms, but in the simple act of caring about his neighbors’ fate more than his own. We don’t need to despair that Yeshua tells us we need such superior righteousness, because the best thing about it is its accessibility. Indeed, it is in simple and practical action on behalf of others that such righteousness reveals its true quality.