Skip to main content

Derech Eretz - Parashat Yitro 5780 - February 14, 2020


This week’s parasha, Parashat Yitro, presents the reuniting of Moshe Rabbenu and his father-in-law, Yitro – the namesake of our parasha.

The Torah records that at the beginning of their encounter, Yitro says to Moshe, “I am your father-in-law, Yitro, who is coming to you and your wife and your two sons with her.” Rabbenu Ovadia Seforno, and a number of our commentators, are troubled by the inclusion of this statement. What does it add?

To answer this question, Seforno makes recourse to a teaching of our Chachamim in Masechet Pesachim 112a – do not enter your home suddenly, all the more so, the house of your friend. Using this dictum, Seforno explains that Yitro was attempting to give Moshe advance warning so that Moshe could have adequate time to make appropriate preparations for Yitro’s lodging. Yitro was concerned about Moshe’s interests and concerns – his announcement is a testament to his high ethical standing.

A more expanded version of this Rabbinic dictum is recorded in the fifth chapter of Masechet Derech Eretz:

A person should never leave the company of his teacher or friend unless he excuses himself and is granted permission. Learn derech eretz from Hashem Who (so to speak) asked permission before leaving the company of Avraham. (Furthermore,) a person should not suddenly enter his friend’s house. Learn derech eretz from Hashem Who (so to speak), after Adam’s sin of the tree of knowledge, stood at the entrance of the Garden of Eden and called to Adam, ‘Where are you?’

What is derech eretz?

On the most basic level, derech eretz means “the way of the world” – human protocol. It is basic protocol to not leave the company of your friend without saying goodbye. It is basic protocol to refrain from barging in on someone’s house. However, in Masechet Berachot 35b, derech eretz is also used in another sense – earning a living. What is the unifying feature of protocols and earning a living?

Perhaps we can suggest that derech eretz refers to a human being’s basic psychological needs – the needs with which we are all hard-wired. We have a need for social harmony (saying goodbye), privacy (announcing one’s arrival) and independence (making a living). The Rabbis teach that we are obligated to promote social harmony – not just from our own framework but equally from the framework of those around us. We are obligated to respect each other’s privacy – because that is a basic human need. The Torah promotes making a living – dependency is taxing.

Our Rabbis teach that while it is natural to be protective and vigilant about our own needs, we must be equally sensitive to the basic psychological needs of everyone around us – we must strive to treat each other with derech eretz. By acting with derech eretz, we teach ourselves to think about the other and to be empathetic to those around us. By acting with derech eretz, we help build a compassionate community. 


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Blessings, Blessings, Blessings - Parashat Lech-Lecha 5780, November 8, 2019

In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, the Torah recounts the Avram’s return from an improbable victory in a war against the four kings. On the way, he encounters MalkiTzedek, the King of Shalem.

The Torah describes the meeting: “MalkiTzedek, king of Shalem, brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of G-d, the Most High. He (MalkiTzedek) blessed him saying, “Blessed is Avram of G-d, the Most High, Maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be G-d, the Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”

The Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leibush, asks why MalkiTzedek blessed Avram before blessing G-d. Although the Midrash, in fact, criticizes MalkiTzedek for prioritizing the blessings in this way, Malbim explains that MalkiTzedek’s decision to bless Avram before G-d is to MalkiTzedek’s credit.

To understand what justifies MalkiTzedek’s prioritization, we first need to ask another question – how can a human being bless G-d? To say that a human being is blessed is understandable – MalkiTzedek saw…

Greater Than the Sum of its Parts - Parashat Vayera 5780, November 15, 2019

In this week’s parasha, VaYera, Avraham Avinu is told of Hashem’s plan to destroy Sedom and its four sister cities. The Torah describes these cities as places of decrepit morals populated by denizens of corrupt values.

The Torah recounts that Avraham asked Hashem to preserve the cities on account of the tzaddikim – the righteous people – who lived in the cities. Avraham inquires whether Hashem would destroy the cities if there were 50 righteous people. Hashem responds that He would not. Avraham then inquires whether Hashem would destroy the cities if there were 45 righteous people. Hashem responds that He would not. Avraham then inquires about 40, 30, 20 or even 10 righteous people. Hashem responds that in any of these cases, He would not cause destruction.

Our chachamim address a number of issues related to this interaction between Avraham and Hashem. One question that they address is why Avraham chose to inquire about 50, 45, 40, 30, 20 then 10 righteous people. What was Avraham’s l…

Chibuv Mitzvot - Loving Mitzvot - Parashat Ha'Azinu 5780, October 11, 2019

In the beginning of Masechet Avodah Zara, the gemara discusses the end of days and concludes the discussion with a presentation of two totally different attitudes towards the mitzvah of sukkah:

In times to come, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will take a scroll of the Law in His embrace and proclaim, “Let him who has occupied himself with this, come and take his reward.” All of the nations will crowd together in confusion. The Holy One, Blessed be He, will then say to them, “Do not come before Me in confusion, but let each nation come in with its scribes.”

The Kingdom of Edom (or Rome) will enter first before Him. The Holy One, Blessed be He, will then say to them, “With what have you occupied yourselves?” They will reply, “O Lord of the Universe, we have established many market-places, we have erected many baths, we have accumulated much gold and silver, and all this we did only for the sake of Israel, that they might [have leisure] for occupying themselves with the study of the Torah.…