It is no coincidence that we read parashat Devarim on the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av, our national day of mourning associated not merely with our loss of the two Temples, but a day synonymous with Jewish calamities throughout the ages.
In Devarim, we see Moshe chastise his people, focusing his displeasure at their lack of faith in God, the One who promised the Land; at their insistence on the dispatching of the spies to verify that God’s promise was real, and then their reaction to the return of these Meraglim, breaking down in tears at their disparaging and discouraging report. All the result of a lack of trust and faith in God.
Think about it, how was it possible for this people to lack faith? How could they doubt?
Scholars and philosophers have wrestled with this flaw in our nature. How is it, when experience and evidence shouts to us to believe, we falter and doubt? Why do we question the fundamental relationships in our lives – both human and divine? Scholars and philosophers may continue to wrestle with this aspect of our being, but Judaism is clear that it is not doubt or challenge which causes our faith to weaken, it is a lack of derech eretz.
Rashi notes that when Moshe was commanded to return to Egypt to lead the people from bondage, he first approached his father-in-law, Jethro, and asked his permission. Imagine! The Creator of all that exists has commanded Moshe to deliver B’nai Yisrael from their bondage yet before doing so Moshe went to Jethro to get permission?
And if Jethro said, No? What then? Would the Children of Israel have continued to languish in slavery to this day?
It was not a lack of understanding that prompted Moshe to go to Jethro. Moshe understood full well the urgency of God’s command. But he also knew that he could never fulfill God’s command if he fell short as a human being, if he fell short of being a mensch. As the Midrash has it, Moshe himself told God, “Jethro accepted me, opened his home to me, and treated me with honor. One owes his life to someone who opens his home to him. Therefore, I cannot go without his permission.”
Indeed, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka has said that if Moshe had not done that, he would have proven himself unworthy of his mission.
Menschlichkeit is not commanded of us; to be a mensch is not encoded in our law. But without being a mensch the performance of our laws is dry and uninspired. Derech eretz kadmah l’Torah. Decency comes before Torah.
Torah cannot be without derech eretz.
Sadly, derech eretz is often lost in our loud and angry culture; a culture where people are more likely to “shout down” rather than listen with open hearts. A culture defined by such anger might pass law after law to determine behavior, but no number of laws can ever “force” people to behave decently toward one another. It is not law which makes for civil society but rather a common ethos that underpins the law, a human decency and consideration.
While those who display derech eretz are invariably polite and considerate, we should never confuse derech eretz with mere politeness. “Please.” “Thank you.” The opening and closing of a door for others. These are expressions of one’s derech eretz. But derech eretz is not performance so much as posture. It is the intent and the consideration that underpins our daily lives.
It is both rooted in trust and respect and an expression of trust and respect. It is an acknowledgement of the authority of elders – of parents, of teachers and, ultimately, of God. One who lacks derech eretz communicates a lack of respect for his fellow Jews. Indeed, it is impossible to be pious if one lacks derech eretz.
Parashat Tzav opens with the Kohanim attending to the task of removing the ashes that had built up on the altar overnight. The Talmud describes how, in their zeal to fulfill this task, the Kohanim would quite literally do battle. They would race one another up the ramp in order to get to the ashes first. The competition to perform this small but holy task grew so heated that, on one occasion, one Kohan shoved another off the ramp, causing him to fall and break his leg. Rather than end the competition, this seemed only to spur it on resulting in even more injury. Finally, a lottery system was enacted, bringing peace to this daily ritual.
Certainly, it is possible to appreciate the passion of the Kohanim to serve Hashem, but here their passion surely diminished the sanctity of God’s Temple and caused disgrace to the House of God.
Derech eretz, in its most basic sense, teaches that it is impossible to be rude, arrogant, rough and unpleasant while remaining a devoted servant of God. It is a contradiction. A true servant of God could no more be rude and unpleasant than dine on treif.
Perhaps nothing highlights the need for derech eretz as powerfully as the opening of Sefer Devarim.
ere, Moshe revisits the consequential events throughout the making of the Jewish people not as a history lesson but as a map going forward so that when he leaves them, they will have the guidance of their past to lead them forward into the future. Here, there is a focus on the decision to send the Meraglim, contrary to God’s will.
This lack of trust in the Ribono shel Olam was such a grave national mistake that its reverberations continue even to today. It is incomprehensible that they could discount all that God had promised the Avot and from His first revelation to Moshe at the Burning Bush and then consistently through their redemption from Egypt and beyond, that the Land would be theirs only to rely instead on the report of twelve mortals…
In recounting this tragic episode, Moshe begins with the words, And all of you approached me and said, Let us send men ahead of us that they shall search out the land for us...
And how did the people approach him? Vatikrevun elai kulchem. Rashi says that the people approached him b’irbuviya – in a state of disorder. They pushed. They shoved. They shouted. “…children pushing the elderly, and the elderly pushing the heads of the tribes.” In other words, the people came to Moshe about this consequential subject without any derech eretz. The people were like vilde chayos, like wild animals.
The suggestion being that, had they come like menschen, with decency and civility, the disaster could very well have been avoided! Seforno emphasizes the chaotic nature of the scene. Kulchem – all of you. Why not send the heads of tribes? The Community Leaders? No, they came as a mob, pushing and shoving.
Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky notes that their approach demonstrates from the beginning that it was ill-intentioned. Had they come to Moshe with derech eretz, without irbuviya the result would have been successful rather than disastrous.
The lessons of Devarim weigh heavily on our understanding of Tisha B’Av. We read it now so that we might refocus on the lack of derech eretz on the part of the Meraglim led directly to such destruction and suffering. Indeed, continues to lead to suffering to this day.
Just as the great stones our ancestors made in Egypt could not hold together without mortar, so it is that the 613 building blocks of Judaism, our mitzvot, do not hold together to form a Jewish life without the mortar of derech eretz. Our mitzvot define the tasks, behaviors and rituals that we are obligated to perform or avoid, but it is ethics, morals and human decency which allow us to translate these mitzvot into a meaningful human life.
The Talmud (Gittin 56) tells of a man who sought to host a party for all his friends, so he drew up a guest list and had his servant send out the invitations. One of the names on the guest list was “Kamtza”. Unfortunately, the servant mistakenly invited “Bar Kamtza” who, as it turned out, was a sworn enemy of the host. That said, Bar Kamtza showed up at the party, pleased that perhaps the two men could make peace.
However, when the host realized what had happened, he sought to angrily remove Bar Kamtza from the party. Bar Kamtza asked to be allowed to remain because to be removed in such a fashion would be embarrassing. The host would hear nothing of it. “Out!” he demanded. Bar Kamtza offered to pay a portion of the party’s cost in order not to be so humiliated. “Out!” He offered to pay the full amount of the party’s cost. The host would not relent.
The Talmud goes on to report that Bar Kamtza was so hurt and upset that he went straight to the Roman authorities and gave slanderous reports of disloyalty among the Jews. This fueled the Romans’ anger, and they proceeded to attack and destroy the Holy Temple.
A lack of derech eretz, such a “small” matter. But it is such a “small” matter, our rabbis teach, that leads to huge consequences – to Churban.
It is telling that in addition to the Tisha B’Av prohibitions regarding the things which bring us joy and pleasure, like eating, drinking, and washing, there is also a prohibition to study Torah. There are those who, determined as they are to forego other joys, simply cannot allow a day – any day – to pass without the joy of Torah study.
How do they accommodate their desire for Torah study with the prohibition against such joyous study? They study the passages enumerating Yirmiyahu’s prophecies of destruction, the tragedy of Iyov or the unfortunate passage in the Talmud Gittin about Kamtza bar Kamtza.
In each, we learn what needs to be learned and relearned on Tisha B’Av. In this last, again, we see how the lack of derech eretz for a fellow Jew, even one with whom you have profound disagreements, can lead to Churban – literally and figuratively.
Therein lies the lesson yet to be absorbed by our contemporary, observant communities. We fall far short in our respect for one another, we get failing grades in derech eretz! For that, and our other failings, next Sunday we will yet again observe Tisha B’Av.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is a long time educator, author and lecturer. His highly acclaimed "Something Old, Something New - Pearls from the Torah" has recently been published by KTAV. His "Kos Eliyahu - Insights into the Haggadah and Pesach" was translated into Hebrew and published by Mosad Harav Kook. His writings regularly appear on the web.