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," So then, whatever you want sons of men to do to you, do the same to them, for this is the Torah and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12, DHE). If you would not want your neighbor to piously shake his head and say “the L-rd’s will be done,” if he learned, G-d 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 L-rd 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 L-rd, but it’s not hard to imagine that the L-rd 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.
Gospel references taken from Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels (DHE)®, © Copyright Vine of David 2010. Used by permission.