Moral Development in the Torah

An essential tool for moral development can be found in the Torah through dissection of the pasuk (verse) in Tehillim (Psalms) (34v.15) which states: Sur meira veasei tov – distance from bad and do good.

This can be understood on a basic level as it is stated. It can also be expounded on a deeper level as referring to the negative and positive mitzvos (commandments.)

Through deeper analysis, one can glean from this pasuk a fundamental principle that underlies moral development. This principle is so important it is a foundation of the Jewish calendar.

moral development in the Torah

Moral Development in the Jewish Calendar

Sur mera (distance from evil) applies to Pesach. Pesach preparation is about ridding ourselves of chometz (leaven) which in the spiritual realm equates to arrogance the source of all evil (a person or people placing themselves above all else.) 

The Pesach story revolves around exodus from the physical capital of spiritual impurity and moral corruption of the time, Mitzrayim (Egypt.) (By way of corollary one of the Egyptian gods was called ra – the sun god.) Thus the leaving of Egypt was the paradigm of sur meira.

Asei tov (do good) refers to Sukkos. The preparation for Sukkos begins in Elul with the theme of doing one more mitzvah (command) to try and balance the scale to good.

The practice of good follows through the Yomim Neorayim (Days of Awe – Rosh Hashana/ Yom Kippur) where we try to grab the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past year by improving all our thought, speech and behaviour.

The culmination of this period and theme of doing good is Sukkos which is filled with positive mitzvos including sitting in the Sukka, lulav (four species) and a slew of special offerings and practices in the Beis Hamikdash (Temple.) 

Through this we are able to reach a level of simcha, true spiritual joy as the rabbinic title of this period Zman Simchaseinu (the Time of our Happiness) suggests, attainable only through doing good.

So we have the distancing from evil on the one hand and the doing good on the other. Could we just adopt one and not the other?

Well let’s see; a philosophy of distancing from evil over and above all else could lead to an asceticism which might condone self-harm and enforce un-Godly consequences for transgression. Doing good without bounds could lead to licentiousness and lack of moral compass. 

What is the pole around which these opposing elements spin to maintain universal equilibrium? The Vav. Vav is the letter that represents Emes (truth.) It is straight with no disconnections. 

Vav (numerical equivalent 6) is Shavuos (Vav - 6th Sivan,) the celebration of the giving of the Torah which is Emes. Torah alone teaches us the correct balance between sur meira and asei tov.

The pasuk reveals to us the order for moral development in the world of action as delineated by the Jewish year:

  1. First distance from bad – what Chazal call Milchamta De’yeitzer (battle with yeitzer hara - evil inclination.)
  2. Next toil to acquire Torah – Milchamta De’Torah (battle of Torah) which brings one to good
  3. Through Torah we acquire the balance between distancing from bad and doing good – Milcahamta de’emes (battle of truth.)

Thus we emerge with an essential principle that the Torah has built into the annual cycle so that with focus, we engage in continual moral and principled development throughout our lives.


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