Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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17 Shevat 5762 - January 30, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Derech Eretz

by HaRav Dovid Leibowitz, zt'l

This shmuess serves as a classic example of the way Reb Dovid would bring out the point of a statement of Chazal's, for his talmidim. As HaRav Avrohom Pam zt'l, put it, "He would take a single midrashic thought and toy with it for an hour, analyzing it, dramatizing it, expanding it at the risk of distortion, reexamining it again and again at the risk of tedium, ever fearful that the point is not yet fully appreciated, ever straining to exhaust the beauty of the medrash . . . "

The impact of this approach (especially in print) lies not so much in a single reading, as in subsequent reflection on the different angles from which the main idea is viewed and seeing how they converge to reveal the central lesson in its full luster.

We often discuss a person's obligation to conduct himself according to the requirements of derech eretz, and the degree of this obligation. We have explained that it is on an even higher level than the Torah's other laws. In parshas Yisro, which speaks about the receiving of the Torah, we find much about the importance of derech eretz.

We see how bnei Yisroel were elevated to the highest level; they all answered in unison, and said, "We will do everything that Hashem says" (Shemos 19:8). These were the most sublime words that bnei Yisroel had yet uttered since becoming a nation. And at this fateful juncture, we find a command related to derech eretz.

[In the same posuk,] the Torah tells us, "and Moshe brought the people's words to Hashem." Rashi explains, "Did Moshe really need to deliver this reply? However, the posuk is coming to teach us correct behavior from Moshe who did not say, `Since the One who sent me knows [the answer anyway], I don't need to deliver the reply.' " (Rashi's source for this explanation is the Mechilta.)

The Torah chooses this supreme moment, the moment when bnei Yisroel accepted Hashem's commandments, to teach us derech eretz. And what kind of derech eretz? Not the derech eretz that warns us not to [knowingly] cause someone else pain, nor even the derech eretz that determines the boundary [of proper conduct] beyond which others' feelings might be wounded [without us having meant this] -- but the [seemingly insignificant] lesson that tells an emissary to bring a report back to his despatcher at the conclusion of his mission. This, too, is part of derech eretz.

This lesson was taught at a time of such great solemnity, when the people said, "Na'aseh," the word that emphasizes more than any other bnei Yisroel's purpose and the tremendous difference between them and the nations, the word that united them, making them into a single, unique nation. This was the very moment that the Torah chose to tell us this lesson, which we learn through a kal vochomer: If in the case of HaKodosh Boruch Hu, who knew what the people had answered, Moshe Rabbeinu still brought a reply even though he added nothing new by doing so, how much more so where the despatcher is human, does derech eretz require the emissary to go back and report on the outcome of his mission!

We might ask however, what is so important about this particular piece of derech eretz, that led the Torah to make a point of stressing it at this exalted moment? Since it applies mainly in situations involving money and transactions, it doesn't need to be used nearly as often as some other aspects of derech eretz, which people are generally careless about. What we see here though, is that not a single action that relates to derech eretz is insignificant. (Although we find that some mitzvos are classed as lenient and others as serious, this only concerns other mitzvos, but is not the case with derech eretz.)

Thus, Na'aseh, the foundation of our acceptance of the Torah, is of comparable importance to derech eretz. The Torah teaches us this piece of derech eretz prior to the giving of the Torah. Even a lesson like this in "Derech eretz," quite literally, "comes before the Torah."

It is hard for a person to grasp the meaning of such a level of derech eretz. Only the Torah is able to assign it its true worth and level.

There are those who think that a person's own understanding can determine how he follows the dictates of derech eretz. They think that he himself can appreciate its importance and assign it value according to his own estimation [in every situation]. This means [that it can vary] in accordance with the consensus that it is correct to behave in such a way [being expendable in situations where common mores deem it unnecessary] and in accordance with the judgment of the individual's emotions.

We see from here however, that all these variables depend upon HaKodosh Boruch Hu. He embodies truth in emotion and He is able to assign priority and importance to derech eretz in every situation. HaKodosh Boruch Hu judged [the human mind] and determined that if a person sends an emissary to carry out any task whatsoever, the latter is obliged to return to him and give a report of its execution. This too, is derech eretz, which the Torah teaches us before the aseres hadibros, the ten fundamentals of the Torah, at the very moment when the entire nation said, "Na'aseh," the most important moment in our history. At that moment they learned from Moshe, who employed this principle in dealing with HaKodosh Boruch Hu, Who understands human emotions and knows that people need to be treated in this way -- that when sending a messenger, he should return with the news of his having fulfilled the request.

This is the meaning of our posuk, "We shall do everything that Hashem said." It tells us that acceptance of the Torah included acceptance of the obligation to behave in accordance with the principles of derech eretz, which had already been employed while the Torah was being received, and which are comprised of hundreds of halochos.

Its supreme importance had been emphasized at the time of sounds and blazing lights, when the mountain trembled and the world was in tumult, and nothing in creation stirred. In those exalted moments, the holy Torah taught us a lesson in derech eretz, that seems trifling, since it doesn't involve another person's pain, but which is nevertheless so important and is stressed to such a degree.

How much more must we take care over derech eretz that involves another person's livelihood, or his self respect! We certainly ought to be aware of its severity and be clear as to the obligation to behave towards others with derech eretz, not only because human emotions dictate that we do so, but because the Torah obliges us to do so.

At the time of matan Torah, we can assume that the people heard no end of new things. However, the really new idea here is that amid all this new knowledge, the Torah could still teach the value of derech eretz, in a very subtle way. This is a great innovation and the source of its supreme importance.

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