Chazal tell of a number of things which preceded the creation of the world (see Pesachim 54a), one of them being Torah. Yet Chazal also say “Derech eretz kadmah laTorah” —Derech eretz (shortly to be defined) precedes the Torah! Now, what could preceding the Torah possibly mean, since Torah is the very blueprint of creation?
The Chinuch explains that sefiras ha’omer —the counting of the 49 days of the omer— is a count of the days from yetzi’as Mitzrayim to the purpose and goal of yetzi’as Mitzrayim —Mattan Torah. (This is not as simple as it sounds. When the passuk speaks of sefiras ha’omer, there is no mention at all either of the Exodus from Egypt, or of the anticipated giving of the Torah. The passuk speaks only of the minchas ha’omer (the ‘omer’ meal offering), brought on the second day of Pesach, and of the fiftieth day hence when a “new minchah” is brought. The Chinuch is the one who tells us that this counting reflects the anticipatory period during which the Jewish people longingly awaited receiving the Torah from Hakadosh Baruch Hu.) In any event, the days of sefiras ha’omer are certainly viewed by all the commentators and by common custom as days of preparation for Mattan Torah. The 48 ways of acquiring Torah, stated in Pirkei Avos, certainly seem to parallel the days leading up to Shavuos. Therefore, it certainly makes sense to spend these days by “preparing” for Torah, and discussing those elements that seem to be a prerequisite.
What is derech eretz? Oh, so many things! Goodness, morality, decency, mentschlichkeit, appropriate behavior, caring, sensitivity and concern for others, consistency, tolerance, character, cleanliness, pleasantness, politeness, dignity, honesty, ehrlichkeit —any and all of the above. But what does it mean to ‘precede the Torah’?
A more basic question, one which has the seeds of the answer, is asked by Rav Chaim Vital, the famous talmid of the Arizal. To wit: Why are middos tovos (good character traits) not incorporated in the 613 mitzvos? “Do Not Get Angry!” ‘‘Do Not Be Lazy!” “Be Humble!” Why are these character imperatives relegated to seeming exhortations in Maseches Derech Eretz, Pirkei Avos and present-day mussar sefarim? Rav Chaim answers that this is because “middos tovos are the preparation for Torah… and that is why having or lacking middos tovos is viewed more severely than aveiros are; and since they are foundational to Torah, they could not be counted amongst the 613 mitzvos; the Torah was only given to those who had purified their middos, thus becoming a proper receptacle for Torah… therefore middos are not written in the Torah.” This idea is echoed by Maharal in Nesivos Olam (Nesiv Derech Eretz), where he writes: “Derech eretz is ‘lower’ wisdom, wisdom that humanity demands, that civilization ‘demands’ in order to allow it to function properly… Torah and mitzvos are a ‘higher’ wisdom, as they are the stepping-stones to spiritual development. ‘Higher’ wisdom can only reside once the ‘lower’ wisdom is in place, or it will have no stability or staying power… it is the requisite vehicle for ‘higher’ wisdom.”
To receive the Torah, to have spiritual values become one’s pursuit in life —one must first be a mentsch! For the Torah was given—to mentschen!
(Yes, there are also the mitzvos which are bein adam lachaveiro. This serves to spiritually sanctify and give kedushah to certain specific actions. Yes, many of those actions would be required behavior of decency and civility anyway; transforming them into mitzvos adds a heretofore-unachievable dimension to them –spirituality.)
Here is how the Vilna Gaon puts it: “All of a person’s avodas Hashem is dependent on his or her tikkun hamiddos. Sins generally have their root in corrupt middos. [e.g., hakin’ah, hata’avah, vehakovod (jealousy, desires, and the need for honor) remove a person from this word (Pirkei Avos 4:21)] …He who gets angry is as one who worships avodah zarah [Avos Derav Nosson, Chapter 4] …Whoever is haughty cannot be together with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, [Bava Basra 98a] These are not explicitly written in the Torah for these are the broad, general, fundamentals of Torah!’
Let us look at the Rambam in Sefer Hamada (the Book of Knowledge) the very first book of his magnum opus Yad Hachazakah. In his introduction, Rambam writes that he will set down the fundamental ideas that comprise the basic thoughts and ideas of Judaism, the knowledge of which a person must acquire above all. The first section of Sefer Hamada is Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah —Laws of the fundamental beliefs of Jewish thought (belief in G-d, in His oneness, in prophecy, in the nature of spiritual beings, etc.) What is second? Hilchos Dei’os—Laws of Character Traits! [This is not a literal translation—the Rambam seems to be using the word ‘Dei’os’ for what we generally call middos.] And the Rambam goes on to discuss anger, humility, arrogance, curbing desires, generosity, stinginess, cruelty, kindness… This apparently is second to the fundamental beliefs of a Jew! And the Rambam concludes that developing these traits in the correct measure and in the right proportion is what the Torah means by “And you shall walk in His (Hashem’s) ways (As the Rambam elaborates later, the ways of Hashem being, are indeed proper character traits such as kindness, benevolence, righteousness, straightforwardness and decency.) These ways, the Rambam says, are called “derech Hashem,” and it is by developing these traits that one emulates Hashem, which is one of our core aspirations in life. It is in these ways that Avraham Avinu walked, and it is these traits that caused him to find favor in the eyes of Hashem, to the degree that Hashem states (Bereishis 18:19) that educating his children and household to follow these paths will be the reason that Hashem will bring upon Avraham all the berachah and goodness that Hashem would bestow upon him.
The Rambam continues to discuss keeping oneself healthy, exactly how to find the proper balance in life, dressing appropriately, being a kind, generous, and pleasant person, and so on.
And this is all second only to basic beliefs! As stated earlier —yes, the Torah was given— but to one who is a mentsch!
In part two, we will delve further into this subject in preparation for kabbalas haTorah.