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.

Part 2: Derech Eretz and the Generation of the Flood

Last week we showed that although the term derech eretz appears hundreds of times in rabbinic literature, we found 6 different distinct meanings of what derech eretz means:

A) Social etiquette/good manners

B) Ethical character/sensitivity to others

C) Earning a living

D) Contribution to society

E) Intimate family life

F) Environmental consciousness

These six categories constitute derech eretz – “the way of the world”.

Rabbi Hirsch’s Multifaceted Definition

What is the overriding and most comprehensive and accurate definition of derech eretz based on these above sources? They seem to be so different in nature, so how can we bring them together in a synergistic, harmonious and comprehensive way? I found in the writings of Shimshon Raphael Hirsch a most beautiful multifaceted definition, which is to my mind the best and most comprehensive description of what derech eretz is all about.

“Derech eretz includes everything that flows from the human being’s necessity to perfect his destiny and his shared life with others in society, through the medium and circumstances available to him on earth. The term is used in reference to earning a livelihood, establishing civic order and referring also to the paths of morality with manners and decency that correct social life requires, and related to the ongoing universal and civil development of humanity.” (Commentary of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch – Pirkei Avot 2;2)

Based on the above interpretations of derech eretz and Rabbi Hirsch’s definition, it is clear that the most accurate definition of derech eretz is the dual ethics of civility and civic virtue. Civility means treating everyone we encounter and all members of society with consideration, decency and respect. Civic virtue means always aspiring to act for the good of the civicus – Latin for city – i.e. society in general and our fellow citizens specifically. It implies living our lives in a manner which is not only good for ourselves, but always focused on the greater good.

When we deal in a respectful and decent manner with our fellow human beings, with appropriate etiquette, ethics and manners, live a healthy family life to perpetuate life, ever mindful of the impact of our actions on the environment around us, earn an honest living thereby proactively contributing to both our wellbeing and to the society at large, we are indeed living with derech eretz. This is “the way of the world”– the way human beings ought to organise themselves through normative moral behaviour thereby creating a sustainable society.

Can we define normative, civil behaviour? Surely, as anthropologists will no doubt point  out,  normality depends on the culture under discussion. What is normal in one society may be considered deviant in another. Is normality not a subjective and relative concept

Nevertheless, it is possible to identify certain common core be- havioural patterns present in almost every culture throughout history. Since time immemorial, individual people have grouped together to form societies and countries. Every society has relied on minimal co- operation among its members; every society has needed to generate its basic necessities for survival; every society has needed to form basic family units and to engage in the propagation of its members in order to perpetuate itself. These core principals have been present at the heart of all societies from the beginning of time.

The Generation of the Flood – A Society Gone Wrong

When a society lacks these core principles of derech eretz, its social fabric disintegrates, and it eventually falls apart. This is what happened in the time of the flood in this week’s parasha.

Amazingly, while the exact terminology ‘derech eretz’ originates in the words of the Sages, the concept itself appears with almost the exact wording in this week’s parasha in the Chumash itself. This context is incredibly telling as to its meaning of derech eretz and to how critical it is for the existence of any society. Indeed, without it a society cannot exist. The verses state:

“And the world was corrupt before G-d, and the world was filled with chamas. And G-d looked upon the world and behold it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its way in the world (darko al ha’aretz). And G-d said to Noah, the end of all flesh is come before Me for the world is filled with chamas through them, and behold I will destroy them with the world.” (Bereishit 6;11–13). In the above source we find a clear reference to the concept of derech eretz with the words darko al ha’aretz – his way in the world (or alternatively – upon the earth). The context that the term is used in is incredibly significant with regard to its meaning. And here is the pertinent point with regard to the term derech eretz: the Torah describes the nature of the corruption with the words: “For all flesh (kol basar) had corrupted its way upon the earth – darko al ha’aretz. From this context it is clear that the meaning of the words darko al ha’aretz is the way a healthy and decent society should behave. Human society has a natural path to follow; a moral course that it must take. In fact, Ibn Ezra as well as the Radak (Verse 11) point out that the words derech eretz literally refer to a basic natural human instinct; an inherent morality. Furthermore, adds Ramban (Verse 13), since it is a natural path, it is therefore an intelligible and rational one. Humanity should have worked out for itself its own moral course.

The Chizkuni (Bereishit 7;1) explains how the generation of the Flood could have received Divine punishment even though they had not received any particular command about living a moral life as follows:

“If you will question – why it was that the generation of the flood were punished if they were never commanded to fulfil mitzvot? The answer is that there are various mitzvot that people must keep based on human logic even if they were not specifically commanded to keep them. That is why they were punished.”

The Torah does not elaborate for us what this natural moral path is. An analysis of the nature of this corruption will help us to infer what in fact this path of derech eretz is. Let’s begin by pointing out the extent of the moral corruption as emerges from the verses above. Firstly, the word ‘corruption’ (the Hebrew root word shicheit) appears four times and the words ‘the world’ – eretz or aretz – are mentioned six times in these three short verses. This unusual emphasis clearly intends to portray the extent of the moral rot of all civilisation at the time. It succinctly reveals to us that the entire society was riddled with this corruption. It ran so deep that the entirety of human society lost its moral right to exist. Secondly, the one element of this spiritual degeneration which is singled out twice is described as chamas. What is this corruption and chamas that the verses speak of?

With regards to the corruption, Rashi quotes the Talmud Sanhedrin (57a) that the corruption was in the realm of immoral sexual conduct as well as pagan, idolatrous worship. The Chizkuni gives an example of the immoral sexual conduct. He says that leaders and people in positions of power used to forcefully remove any woman from her husband and family and possess her. Rashi, quoting the Talmud Sanhedrin (108b) and the Bereishit Rabba (31), mentions that chamas refers to gezel – rampant robbery. Ramban adds that this includes oshek – oppression of the weak. In fact, the Sages in the above sources of Sanhedrin say the decree of ultimate destruction with the waters of the flood was enacted because of the existence of this robbery. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba above) describes the difference between chamas and gezel. Gezel is overt robbery which clearly breaks the law. Chamas, on the other hand, is a more subtle corruption of society which attempts to work within the bounds of the law. The example given in the Midrash is with regard to one who steals a small amount of money, less than a shaveh pruta. This is not considered stealing from a halachic point of view as it is an insignificant amount of money.

By stealing small amounts of money a person could eventually overtake the entire fortune of others. This is what was rampant in the society. The Chizkuni mentions that chamas includes immoral sexual conduct, pagan idol worship and even murder itself. The full picture of the decay in society is now apparent. There was no system of upholding justice or respect for the dignity of life. The sense of belonging of spouses and family to each other, the absolute right of ownership of all personal property, was trampled on. The value of life itself was eventually cheapened. It affected every level of society and ultimately led to its demise.

We now have a more lucid understanding of what derech eretz is. This immoral rot was in essence the corruption of derech eretz. This is not the way people and society are supposed to behave. This is not their designated path. Undoubtedly, derech eretz here refers to a society founded on sound moral principles. These include implementing a system of justice based on a respect for human life, the sanctity of the family ethic and the right of personal ownership of property. In a word, the implication is that derech eretz is the way society and civilisation should function in a just and moral way. The major figure to emerge after the generation of the Flood is Abraham. He becomes the moral trailblazer who ushers in the new era and path of the Avot (our forefathers) – the mainstay of the Book of Bereishit. The Avot are clearly being juxtaposed to the generation of the Flood who so lacked derech eretz; and their lives provide an antidote and alternate moral paradigm for building a society.

Next week, in Part 3, we will explore the remarkable life of Avraham Avinu and indeed all of our founding fathers and mothers. We will highlight how their lives were the epitome of derech eretz, why it is that the book of Bereishit is known as Sefer Hayashar – the Book of the Righteous -and will see the great Netziv’s introductions to the Book of Bereishit, which is essentially all about the concept and relevance of derech eretz throughout history.

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