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When Doing What’s Right Is Not Enough

This following story takes place in Israel about 60 years ago, a time when both food and finances were scarce. Many prominent guests were attending the wedding of the children of two great rabbis. Rav Auerbach’s son and Rav Werner’s daughter had just stood under the marriage canopy and the wedding reception was underway with each of the guests receiving their main and only course, plated fish. As the waiters began placing the plates in front of the guests a murmur started circulating in the room. Before long it became clear to everyone in the room that the caterer had made a grave mistake in his food prep and the entire main course was spoiled to the point that it was completely inedible! The bride, groom, and the entire extended family were incredibly embarrassed. Rav Auerbach quietly slipped out of the wedding party and made his way directly to the caterer’s office. He quickly explained what has happened and then said, “As you know, Rav Werner and I agreed that our families would split the total cost of the catering bill 50/50. I am concerned that Rav Werner will rightfully not want to pay his half and therefore I would like to pay 100% of the catering bill right now. My only condition is that if anyone antagonizes you about the food being spoiled, you may not allow it to escalate into any confrontation.” After hearing Rav Auerbach’s offer and condition the caterer sat back in his chair and began laughing. Rav Auerbach was puzzled and politely asked the caterer to explain what was so amusing? The caterer responded, “Rav Werner was just in this office one minute ago and said the exact same thing!”

Rabbis Aurbach and Werner were not wealthy people, in fact they were far from wealthy in the way most of us measure wealth. They could have found a silver lining to the embarrassment that they felt by not paying the caterer and saving the little money they had for the next wedding or cost they might incur. In strict law, they would have been correct. Yet, they each on their own saw something more important than saving money. They saw the bitterness and damage of a possible fight and they were each eager to pay a large sum to avoid that bitterness.

We Need To Learn To Look Deeper

Fairness is vitally important and we should not have to pay for someone else’s mistake. If that were the only factor, perhaps the right thing to do would be not to pay, but here there was much more at stake. Greatness is about going beyond the letter of the law. As Rav Luzzato explains in Mesilas Yesharim (The Path Of The Just) righteousness is about understanding what the Almighty wants from us in any given situation even if we are not absolutely commanded to do it. There is the law, and then beyond the letter of the law. They would have been “right,” “correct,” “honest,” and “ethical” to not pay for rotten fish, but the price of insisting on the letter of the law could have caused a fight. Sometimes there is a mitzvah to pay for a wedding meal, and sometimes there is a mitzvah to pay to avoid a fight.

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