The rabbis of the Talmud discuss the 613 precepts of Torah and how the prophets sought to distill them into just a few principles. David, in Psalm 15, lists eleven; Isaiah reduces them to six (Is. 33:15-16); and Micah refines them even further to three: “It has been told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly before your God (Mic. 6:8). Then the discussion in the Talmud continues:
Isaiah came again and reduced them to two principles, as it is said, Thus says the Lord, Keep justice and do righteousness . . . (Is. 56:1). Amos came and reduced them to one principle, as it is said, For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel, Seek Me and live (Amos 5:4). To this R. Nahman b. Isaac demurred, saying: [Might it not be taken as,] Seek Me by observing the whole Torah and live? — But it is Habakkuk who came and based them all on one principle, as it is said, But the righteous shall live by his faith (Hab. 2:4).
It’s remarkable to hear the Talmud citing Habakkuk 2:4 in a way similar to that of the Apostolic Writings (see Rom1:17, Gal. 3:11, Heb. 10:38-39). In all these cases “faith” can be translated as “faithfulness,” which sheds light on the meaning of the verse. We might think of “faith” as mere belief, or agreement with certain key doctrines, but faithfulness implies more, namely loyalty to the Lord and his ways, staying true through life’s trials and changes. Faithfulness entails belief, but will also show up in our behavior and attitudes. We might call it faith-in-action. Such faithfulness is not portrayed here in contrast with Torah obedience, but as foundational to it. It does not negate the many other elements of a life pleasing to God, but underlies them all.
“Righteous” is another key word in this verse. So as we seek to practice the middah of righteousness, the Talmud and Habakkuk provide some major direction. Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh agrees with Yeshua himself in defining righteousness as treating others the way we want to be treated ourselves. Habakkuk reveals that such righteousness doesn’t arise out of keeping a detailed list of does and don’ts, or out of trying harder when we fail. We do need to put effort into righteousness, but it’s a relational effort before everything else, a matter of getting deeply in touch with Hashem and maintaining that connection through the way we treat others, in short of being faithful to the one who is faithful to us.
To paraphrase Habakkuk, The righteous person is the one who lives a life that is faithful to Hashem. Or to paraphrase from another angle, The one who faithfully stays right with God is really living.That’s righteousness, that’s faithfulness, and that’s life!
This week’s parasha is a source for many liturgical texts within the Jewish tradition such as Ve’ahavta (Deuteronomy 6:5–9), Ki HaShem Hu HaEloqim (Deuteronomy 4:39) from the Alenu, and Vezot HaTorah (Deuteronomy 4:44) from the Torah service, with the most obvious being the great, prayerful/theological/
Often when we speak of the righteousness of God we conjure up images of perfection. After all, God directed Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem your God” (Vayikra 19:2). Unfortunately our efforts often fall short of God’s highest standards and can leave us feeling inadequate.
In the volume, Sefer haMiddot, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that one should give charity (tzedakah) before praying as well as bind oneself to the righteous (tzaddikim) of the generation. In other words, there is a connection between giving charity and cleaving to the righteous, and an interconnection between the performance and reception of righteousness.
One of the components of the birkhot hashachar (morning blessings) section of shacharit service is the section of saying a blessing over learning Torah. The standard is that one is not supposed to learn any Torah until having recited this blessing. As is the case with almost every other blessing, the act that follows the blessing must correspond to the subject at hand (in this case the subject is Torah learning). The particular passage chosen from the written Torah is Numbers 6:24-26 (The Aaronic Blessing). One of the sections of oral Torah selected is from B. Shabbat 127a:
His attitude, always to bear in mind the good of the next person, made him adopt a more lenient attitude in all matters of permitted and forbidden things, based on the principle "the power to rule leniently is to be preferred." As has been stated, Rabbi Israel [Salanter] would punctiliously observe all stringencies and comply with all opinions. This applied where he himself alone was involved. Wherever others were concerned, he would always seek the ways and means to rule leniently. This accounts for his many well-known rulings in matters pertaining to health and danger to life,"danger to life being graver than ritual prohibitions."
From here stemmed his audacious granting of permission to perform acts otherwise forbidden on Shabbat and to eat on Yom Kippur during the outbreak of the cholera epidemic in Vilna. And from here stemmed his lenient ruling on his own conduct where others might thereby suffer hardship. Reliable sources indicate that one of the reasons for Rabbi Israel [Salanter] refusing to accept a rabbinical appointment was that he sided with the more lenient opinions in many halachot in opposition to the prevailing stricter rulings of the other authorities, and he was unwilling to stir up objections and arguments. --The Mussar Movement, Volume 1, Part 2 pages 253-54.
Even while living in Salant, it happened once that Rabbi Israel [Salanter] was unable to be present when his shemurah matzah was being baked. Knowing that he took the greatest pains to observe all the finer points involved in the baking of the matzah, his disciples had undertaken to supervise for him in his absence. They asked for his instructions. What should they be most careful to watch?
Rabbi Israel ordered them to be especially careful not to distress the woman kneading the dough in their zeal, since she was an unfortunate widow, and they would thereby transgress the prohibition, "You shall not oppress a widow..." "The kashrut of the matzah is not complete with the observance of all the embellishments of the laws of Pesach alone," he would say, "But with the observance of all the finer points of the Choshen Mishpat as well." --from The Mussar Movement Volume 1, Part 2, pages 220 - 221
The Hebrew word for righteousness is tzedek. Tzedek is almost impossible to translate, because of its many shadings of meaning: justice, charity, righteousness, integrity, equity, fairness and innocence.