Last week, as part of our preparation for Kabbalas HaTorah engendered by sefiras ha’omer, we started discussing the concept of “Derech eretz kadmah la’Torah,” explaining that —in some way— basic ethics such as decency, morality, courtesy, good manners, mentschlichkeit, and middos tovos form the foundational basis that enables a person to become a vehicle for Toras Hashem.
This week, we will take a closer look at this concept, and define our terms more exactly.
On the one hand, we saw sources such as Rav Chaim Vital and Maharal, who describe derech eretz as a stepping stone to spiritual development, as “lower wisdom” which gives way to and sets the stage for “higher wisdom.” On the other, we have seen the words of the Vilna Gaon who says that the purpose of the mitzvos is to result in the goal of tikkun hamiddos! Moreover, his prize disciple, Rav Chaim Volozhiner [in his treatise on Pirkei Avos (Ruach Chaim)] explains the seemingly enigmatic phrase of the mishnah “Im ain Torah ain derech eretz, im ain derech eretz ain Torah” by comparing it to another statement in that mishnah, “im ain kemach ain Torah, im ain Torah, ain kemach” (if there is no flour, there cannot be Torah; if there be not Torah, there will not be kemach). Rav Chaim explains the latter statement as follows: without flour –financial support – there is no Torah (i.e., it is unsustainable). But without Torah, sustenance has no meaning or purpose! Now let us extrapolate to the first statement, and we are left with a most startling assertion! To wit, without Torah, true derech eretz is impossible, because the Torah contains the halachic and homiletic content to teach us how to be good people. Without that, it is impossible to develop derech eretz in any meaningful, valuable way. Thus, the second half of the statement, Rav Chaim astoundingly asserts, means that without derech eretz, what is your Torah worth? What gives significance and worth to one’s Torah is the creation of a noble, refined person, who behaves ethically and exhibits middos tovos!
Ramban too (Devarim 22:6), states explicitly that the meaning of Chazal’s maxim “The commandments were given only in order to purify mankind through them” is that “every mitzvah has a useful and clear benefit for mankind besides the reward that one receives for fulfilling it… that people should become like refined silver, which has all impurities extracted from it… the benefit of our observing the commandments is not for Hashem’s sake, as if He needs something; rather, that we ourselves should learn and internalize some great truth or to inculcate middos tovos… for example, the method of slaughtering is to guide us in the paths of compassion, even as we slaughter the animal for food… in order to teach us middos tovos, good character traits… and to purify our souls… the commandments give nothing to Hashem, but exhibit implanting compassion into our souls… to teach us the trait of mercy, that we not be cruel… they are decrees meant to guide us and to teach us good character traits.”
And thus, that which the Rambam writes, i.e., that acting in an upright fashion and with middos tovos is a fulfillment of the mitzvah “And you shall walk in the ways of Hashem,” with middos tovos being ‘the ways of Hashem,’ certainly points to such behavior as a goal, a purpose —not as a stepping stone or prerequisite for something else. One imagines that emulating Hashem and acting similar to Him is the highest calling humankind can and should strive for. Similarly, Rashi (Devarim 13:5), explaining the passuk’s exhortation to cling to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, “u’bo tidbakun,” writes: “cling to His ways and His middos; act kindly, do chessed, as we constantly find Hashem doing.” This, too, certainly bespeaks a destination and an objective, not a foundation for greater things.
It seems that we are indeed dealing with different concepts. Let us refer to them as A) derech eretz and B) middos tovos. We find that Chazal describe what could be characterized as simple civilized behavior, and exhort us to keep to it. This is what Maharal refers to as exhibiting appropriate human behavior. As we make our way through tractates Derech Eretz Rabbah, Derech Eretz Zuta, countless Midrashim, Pirkei Avos and various aggadettas in Shas, we see described wide-ranging practices and conventions in etiquette, hygiene, decency, amiability, manners, integrity, courteousness, and the like. As the Mishnah (Kiddushin 40b) states: “Whoever does not act with derech eretz is not min hayishuv (part of the civilized world).” Rashi there comments that the reason such a person (see the Gemara there for the kinds of behavior referred to) is actually disqualified from being a kosher witness in Jewish Court is that he lacks self-dignity, self-worth, and self-respect. Such a person, says Rashi, will quite easily lie. There are behavioral modes that are discussed also by the Rambam in Hilchos Dei’os, especially in Chapters 2, 4, and 5. Gemaras and Midrashim are replete with examples: Moshe Rabbeinu not entering the Ohel Mo’eid until called by Hashem, receiving, as it were, permission from Hashem. The angels “eating” when they visited Avraham Avinu and, conversely, Moshe Rabbeinu’s not eating when he was in Heaven. This teaches, say Chazal, that a person should always conduct himself according to the mores and customs of a place he is visiting (within the bounds of Halachah, of course) and should not stand out ostentatiously. Hillel taking care to wash himself, to be clean and neat. Such deportment is what we speak of when we speak of a base for Torah —mentschlichkeit coming before the Jew, so to speak. But there is an even higher “calling,” that the mitzvos we do —especially those that are between man and his fellow— refine us, and create a spiritually-charged person, going way beyond basic mentschlichkeit, and being as upright and straightforward, compassionate, moral, sensitive and caring, charitable and giving, as the Torah actually requires of us in its mitzvos. That is what is meant by the goal and purpose of Torah and mitzvahs —to create a man, or better put, to have man create himself or herself, being a person who will emulate Hashem, follow in His ways, and cling to Him.