From the Jewish Week
When a word means too much, it means nothing at all. Definition must limit, or it serves no purpose. Case in point: define the biblical word “good” [tov].
In Parashat Re’eh, tov appears in the phrase “when you do the good and the upright (ha-tov v’ha-yashar) in the eyes of the Lord your God” [Deut. 12:28]. And what might that “tov” be? Haven’t all the specific obligations already been enumerated before this verse, and its sister verse of two weeks ago, “Do the upright and the good” [Deut. 6:18]? What is being added?
Other biblical verses present similar issues: “It is not good for man to be alone” [Gen. 2:18]. Why not? The Midrash and commentaries abound with possibilities for this vague term. Even the Mishna faces this quandary: “There were no greater Yom Tov days for the Jewish people than Yom Kippur and the 15th of Av” [Ta’anit 4:5]. Why is the 15th of Av called a Yom Tov? It has no special prayers, laws or restrictions. No fewer than six interpretations are offered in the Talmud for the significance of the day that just passed the other week (Aug. 5).
Can we identify the original, root meaning of tov and reclaim it for these texts and others?
Rabbi Tzadok Ha-Kohen Rabinowitz of Lublin (1823-1900) famously observed that the root meaning of a biblical word is best determined by examining its first occurrence in the Torah. When the first day of creation was concluded, God saw that the created light was “good” [ki tov]. Nachmanides notes that tov implies something that is worthy of continuing or being perpetuated. Therefore God willed a continuing existence for the fruits of his creation.
When God announces (regarding the need for Adam to have a wife), “Lo tov heyot ha-adam levado” (“It is not good for man to be alone”) this phrase meant that, were man to remain alone, the species could not perpetuate itself. When Yocheved, mother of Moses, said her newborn was “tov” it meant the newborn was not just good but also viable.
This understanding of tov as continuity is explicit in Ecclesiastes 8:13, “But the evildoer shall not have ‘tov,’ and one who does not fear the Lord, like a shadow, shall not have length of days.”
Since the verse is written in poetic parallelism, “tov” is equivalent to “length of days.”
It should not surprise us, then, that the multiple interpretations of the 15th day of Av as a Yom Tov revolve around the continuity of the Jewish people, because the day commemorates the permission for different segments of Israelites to marry; the cessation of death by attrition for the generation of the wilderness and so forth.
To explain “When you do the good and the upright,” Nachmanides cites a Midrash that exhorts the Jew to go beyond the letter of the law in business dealings: “Since it is impossible for the Torah to mention all of a man’s behaviors toward his neighbors and friends, [and all of] his social and national interactions, therefore, after having mentioned many examples ... it says in general that he must do the upright and good in every matter, to include in this the obligation to accept compromise and to go beyond the requirement of the law...”
In other words, Jews are commanded to take the course of action that will best ensure the smooth functioning and continuity of society. You may benefit more from pressing your case in a winner-take-all manner, but society will benefit if its members allow each other to save face, and always leave something on the table.
The rabbis of the Talmud included in this category numerous volitional gestures that became “close to a mitzvah,” such as giving preference over other buyers to a neighbor who wants to purchase land adjacent to his own, and placing no statute of limitations on how long a person may redeem property that was confiscated by the court to discharge a debt.
In recent weeks we have seen the opposite of tov flooding the print, broadcast and electronic media. Images of religious Jews being trundled into waiting police cars, accused of corruption, money laundering and organ trafficking have reinforced the scandalous stereotype of the Jew as a money-grubbing, manipulative dealer in pounds of flesh. The very continuity of American society is threatened by such actions, not to mention the continued reputation of the Jewish community. It is time to reclaim the tov, the goodness/continuity by projecting an image of Judaism as it truly is: concerned with the just functioning of society and its productive continuity.
We must live a Judaism of tov and take steps to restrain those who would misrepresent us for selfish motives. By bearing inconvenience, and even financial sacrifice in order to achieve Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name, we will make every day a Yom Tov.