Years before “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” became slogans, Christopher Peterson, one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, used to say, “OPM: Other People Matter.” But millennia before him came the giving of the Torah, a Divine blueprint of transformation for both the individual and society. In an unbounded and unrestrained world where “might makes right,” G‑d introduced a new concept: You can be better than this. How so?

To base a society around a legal code was not an entirely new paradigm. Predating the giving of the Ten Commandments was the famous Code of Hammurabi, and archaeologists have found remnants of even earlier codes of law. Hammurabi’s Code stratified society, where rights and penalties depended on who you were and whom you injured. The rules were not just applied differently to women and the poor; for example, the code had different laws and standards for the “lower classes.” But it’s rather remarkable that in the ancient world, the least powerful classes had any codified rights at all.

So how is justice in the Torah different? There is a difference between a code of laws that protects society and a code of laws the elevates humanity—a system that defends the status quo versus one that unifies and uplifts by directing people to go against their base instincts to better themselves.

Being Right Versus Being Happy

There’s an expression in marriage: “You can be right, or you can be happy.” I think it applies to all relationships, and probably to life itself. Most of us keep tabs on the universe and others. When we don’t get what we think is our “due,” we feel short-changed. In the space between what we think we deserve and what we get, we feel not only resentful, but diminished. We feel lack. And it’s not just in the physical realm but emotional. We feel entitled to respect, loyalty, unconditional love and gratitude. When we don’t “feel the love” in exactly the way we want it, we often feel betrayed and stew in our self-righteousness.

A man I know fought with his daughter. In this man’s eyes, he saw no complicity of his own, and he genuinely felt that he was the injured party. I asked him what it would take to reconnect with his daughter, and he insisted that she was wrong, and therefore, would have to apologize first. Knowing his daughter to be a chip off the same emotional block, she felt the same way towards her father. They have been estranged now for about 20 years. He’s in his 80’s. You don’t have to be a statistician to do the math. Each of them is locked in a rigid view of justice, which is more important than the relationship, in this case, throwing under the bus a bond that should otherwise be unbreakable. G‑d wants us to be better than that.

The Beauty of Complexity

The beginning paragraph of Shoftim contains the famous phrase: “Justice, justice shall you pursue … .” While the Torah may be poetic, it is not poetry. There is not one extraneous word, nor does the text rely on alliterative and other literary devices to turn a phrase. “Justice,” therefore, is not a single word, because justice is not a single concept; Tzedek, the Hebrew word for “justice,” embodies the double qualities of both “righteousness” and “mercy.”

Laws protect our safety, ensure rights, resolve conflicts and bind us as a society. Without the underpinning of both righteousness and mercy, however, the resulting society we could create would be neither just nor holy.

To create a holy society, however, is not just to survive, but also to thrive. And this entails altruism—the engine that drives that well-known Jewish passion for making the world a better place. By emphasizing how to treat the weakest of our society, G‑d lifts us above our tendencies to become self-centered.

Covenant Versus Contract

At this juncture, the Jewish people were on the verge of crossing the Jordan and settling the Land of Israel. As such, they would be setting up societies and implementing legal systems, the foundations of the “social contract,” so that we can all get along. Ensuring socially predictable behaviors and norms are crucial to the survival of the common order. Unlike any other society ever created before, whether driven by the economy of the marketplace and the power of the state, the Jewish nation was to be unique—a covenantal community, based on collective responsibility.

In a lecture titled “Cultural Climate Change,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks referred to this as a society of shared values, which is how we act towards each other without the market paying us or the state forcing us to be nice. In a covenantal society, explains Rabbi Sacks, we are all in this together, and we are all responsible for each other. Otherwise, all that’s left is the social contract, and that dehumanizes us. When we continue to outsource services, the state gets bigger, while our communities and we, as individuals, grow smaller.

Jews are referred to as the “People of the Covenant,” referring to the relationship between G‑d and the Jewish people. Unless we create a just and kind society sourced in collective covenantal consciousness, then we are breaking faith with G‑d, no matter how pious we may think we are.

Holy Is Happy

The Declaration of Independence grants individuals the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. The Torah, on the other hand, envisions a holy nation pursuing justice, justice. Where laws are black and white, justice requires wisdom. But justice—justice requires something higher than that: holiness.

We have a saying in the Torah’s legal system: “to go beyond the letter of the law.” What is “beyond?” Where is it? It’s not a place; it’s who you are. When you step out of the zone of your undeniable rights and remember that Other People Matter. Paradoxically, when you can shift your focus in this way, you’ll be a lot happier, too.