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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. 


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