The Talmudic sage Rabbi Hiyya was approached by a woman and asked to authenticate a coin [BT Bava Kamma 99b-100a]. While he was not in the business of currency, a scholar may be called upon to offer his wisdom in areas far outside his realm of expertise. As it so happens, the sage authenticated the coin, but the woman had a hard time using it and eventually returned to Rabbi Hiyya. When he realized her troubles, he asked his assistant to note the problem and to replace the coin. Was he obligated to do so, asks the Talmud?
In a word: no.
In a word: yes.
Technically speaking, Rabbi Hiyya owed this woman nothing. He gave what he thought was his best judgment and could not be penalized for it. And yet, Rabbi Hiyya felt some degree of responsibility for this unnamed woman. Perhaps she was poor and the way she held onto the coin indicated to this scholar that she could ill afford this kind of mistake. Perhaps Rabbi Hiyya was touched by her reverence for him. Alternatively, Rabbi Hiyya understood that there are duties and expectations of scholars and leaders that go beyond the letter of the law.
The Talmud itself continues with a discussion of Rabbi Hiyya's supererogatory behavior and finds justification in it from a teaching of Rabbi Yosef. "Rabbi Yosef taught concerning the verse: 'And you shall show them the way wherein they must walk and the work that they must do' (Exodus18:20)." What way are we bound to walk and what kind of work must we do? These questions interested Rabbi Yosef, and he parsed the verse and allowed it to unfold in an accordion of intellectual and humane responsibilities.
'And you shall show them:' this is referring to the core of their existence (Torah study).
'The way:' This is referring to acts of kindness.
"They must walk:" This is referring to visiting the sick.
"Wherein:" This is referring to burial of the dead.
"The work:" This is referring to conducting oneself in accordance with the law.
"That they must do:" This is referring to conducting oneself beyond the letter of the law.
This indicates that the Torah mandates that people conduct themselves beyond the letter of the law."
What is the work we must do? We must have the intelligence and presence of mind to live by the law and also know when to go beyond it. Not everything can be dictated by a rule. Often, acts of kindness and holiness are dictated by a generous impulse. We often squash that impulse. Rabbi Yosef asked us to pay greater attention to it.
Maimonides, who was a great believer in Aristotle's golden mean, wrote that when it comes to character traits, one should achieve a middle ground of temperament. And yet, even so, he acknowledged that there are people of piety who acquire saintly status by acting above the letter of the law [Hilkhot Da'ot 1:5]. Maimonides was particularly concerned with the behavior of scholars and demanded that they act above reproach and above the letter of the law so that they live up to the reputations they earned [Hilkhot Yesodai HaTorah 5:11]. Scholarship is always, in Jewish tradition, supposed to seep into who we are. And while we may not expect rabbis and leaders to go beyond the law, we are often quick to catch them for not doing so.
Many people, in building up to the High Holiday season, take on additional mitzvot. That's living by the law, just more of it. Sometimes its not always about doing more, but about doing what we do already but in a better, deeper, more sincere and more pious way. Walk this way, Rabbi Yosef, advises us, and you will walk to better places and with a better quality of people. Teshuva, repentance, is not always about refraining from what is wrong but doing more of what is right.