Derech Eretz Precedes the Torah

A 4-part series by World Mizrachi Director-General, Rabbi Doron Perez

On the meaning and relevance of Derech Eretz today

The term derech eretz is one of the most complex, multifaceted and fundamental ideas in all of Jewish life. It is also one of the most misunderstood.

The book of Bereishit – Genesis – in general and the opening Parashiyot in particular are pivotal in any attempt to understanding this powerful and transformational idea.

You can find Part 1 here

You can find Part 2 here

Part 3: Being Righteous and Crooked

The mitzvot of the Torah given on Mount Sinai are fundamentally incomplete without derech eretz serving as their solid foundation. It is clear from the Midrash (that we have previously quoted which is the source of the phrase “derech eretz proceeds the Torah” ) associate s the Torah with the Tree of Life. The Torah is the eternal and Divine word of the Creator. It is equally clear from the Midrash that the path leading to the acquisition of the Torah is the above principle of derech eretz.

Lack of Derech Eretz – Grave Ramifications

This path of derech eretz is so inherently connected to Torah living that Torah which is not preceded by derech eretz leads to grave spiritual ramifications. The Netziv (an acronym for Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the legendary Rosh Yeshiva of the great Volozhin Yeshiva, Lithuania) makes this point absolutely clear in the introduction of his the Book of Bereishit in his monumental commentary on the Torah Ha’Amek Davar. This piece to my mind is one of the most foundational texts as to the essence of Jewish living. He states as follows with regard to the generation of the destruction of the second temple. His words are very sharp and we would not be able to state such things if it was not for the fact that we were quoting the great Netziv in his own words.

We have explained that they were righteous, pious and toiled in Torah learning, but they were not upright in the ways of the world. They therefore acted with causeless hatred in the hearts and regarded all those that chose a different religious path as a Sadducee and a heretic. This divisiveness led to spilling of innocent blood and to all the evils of the world until the Temple itself was destroyed… G-d is upright and does not put up with this type of righteousness which is not coupled with upright moral living in the ways of the world. Even though this righteousness is ostensibly for the sake of heaven, it causes a destruction of creation and decimation of civilization

The Netziv identifies the generation of the destruction of the Second Temple as a society without derech eretz; even though they studied Torah and followed the mitzvot meticulously, the very foundation of their righteousness was flawed. This is true to such an extent that the holy Temple can be destroyed if Torah observance is divorced from normal upright living.

This incomplete type of Torah living leads not to positive societal living but rather to divisiveness and even hatred. It seems clear that all Torah living in every generation must be deeply connected to normal upright living.

The Lives of the Avot – The Path of Derech Eretz

The Netziv juxtaposes the generation of the Second Temple with the lives of the Avot – our forefathers. He maintains that in contrast to the lack of derech eretz at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, the Avot were paragons of the traits of upright and decent moral living. The Netziv states this succinctly in the following source, which forms part of his Introduction to the Book of Bereishit and is a direct continuation of the source quoted above in his name.

“This book which is called the Book of Bereishit is called by the Prophets Sefer Hayashar – The Book of the Upright, as is mentioned in Tractate Avoda Zara (25a). Rabbi Yochanan explains in this Talmudic source with regard to the term Sefer Hayashar: this is the book of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who were called yesharim – upright. Bil’am in the Book of Numbers (23) says with regard to the Avot: ‘The latter end of my soul should be like those of the upright.’ We have to understand why Bil’am refers to our forefathers as upright and not righteous or saintly. And furthermore why is the Book of Bereishit referred to specifically as the Book of the Upright… And this was the praise of the forefathers that besides being righteous and pious lovers of G-d in every possible way, they were also morally upright and straight. They behaved in this manner: with love and decency towards the heathen nations of the world even though they were immoral pagans. They sought after their best interests as this was furthering and maintaining the purpose of creations. We see furthermore that Abraham prayed for the well-being of the inhabitants of Sodom even though he utterly despised them and their king because of their moral wickedness… At any rate he desired their well-being… So too with Isaac… as well as with Jacob… We have learnt much from the way in which our forefathers conducted themselves with derech eretz. All that relates to maintaining society and perpetuating creation is unique about this book. It is therefore called Sefer Hayashar – The Book of the Upright, because of the emphasis on the actions of the Avot particularly…” (Ha’Amek Davar, ibid.)

It is clear from the above source that the Book of Bereishit in general and the lives of the Avot specifically revolve around the axis of derech eretz. The forefathers are the epitome of derech eretz – normality and decent upright living as the focus and essence of their lives.

This is true to such an extent that the Sage, Rabbi Yochanan, defines them as yesharim – upright people. Indeed the entire Book of Bereishit is entitled Sefer Hayashar – the Book of the Upright.

In fact, it is most intriguing to note that the Book of Bereishit makes little mention of individual religious and ritual practices of the Avot, but rather emphasises their normal, decent and upright dealings with their fellow men and the societies within which they lived.

Despite the many deep ideological differences that our forefathers had with their pagan contemporaries, they always behaved with a sense of common decency. They behaved with love and always sought after their best interests. There are many examples of this which permeate the Book of Bereishit.

Perhaps one of the most convincing examples is the one that the Netziv cites with regard to the inhabitants of Sodom. In Bereishit (Chapter 18–19) the Torah depicts the extent of the immoral foundations of Sodomite society. The ethical repugnancy of Sodom is antithetical to everything Abraham stood for. Yet he was still able to pray for them and plead on their behalf. In spite of everything, he deeply desired their wellbeing and wished for society to be maintained and sustained.

The Netziv maintains that both Yitzchak and Ya’akov behaved in a similar spirit of derech eretz towards the heathens of their generation. Perhaps the following statement of the Sages with regard to the influence that Ya’akov had on the city of Shechem best depicts the nature of their contribution to the societies in which they lived. The Torah in Bereishit (33) relates the returning of Ya’akov and his family from his father-in-law Laban’s house in Aram. Ya’akov arrived in the city of Shechem and “encamped (vayichan) at the face of the city”. The word “encamped” shares the same root as the word chen (to find favour, grace). What is the connection between Ya’akov’s encamping and sojourning in the city of Shechem with the alternative meaning of finding favour in the eyes of others? In this respect, our Sages make the following telling remark:

“Rav says that our forefather Jacob established a new viable currency for the city. Shmuel says that he established market places for them. Rabbi Yochanan says that he established bath-houses for them.” (Masechet Shabbat 33b).

In short, the lives of our forefathers and mothers are stories about how being righteous and upright are inseparable from one another and are a package deal in terms of the of philosophy of Torah. Together they create the path of derech eretz, at the heart of the book of Bereishit, which is also called the Book of the Upright and one that must precede the Book of Shemot, which is the Book of Revelation of Torah. Torah cannot be revealed without it being placed firmly on the foundations of derech eretz.

The final part of the series in terms of its relevance to today’s challenges will appear next week.

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