Friday, June 17, 2016

Derech Eretz Came before the Torah

By HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Rosh HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh

"Aharon did so, he raised up the lamps opposite the face of the Menorah" [Bamidbar 8:3]. The sages commented, "There was a stone in front of the Menorah with three steps, and the Kohen would stand on it to prepare the lamps." [Rashi; Tamid, Chapter 3]. Why did the sages put such emphasis on the matter of three steps for preparing the lamps and not mention that the Kohen stood on them to light the lamps? After all, the mitzva is to light them, while getting them ready is merely preparation for the mitzva itself.

Rabbi Yosef Salant writes an explanation in his book Be'er Yosef that has practical consequences for us. The sages wrote that the purpose of the Menorah was to enhance the light of the Torah in Yisrael. "The Menorah... hints at the Torah, which is called light" [Rabeinu Bechayai]. The seven branches of the Menorah represent the seven types of wisdom, "teaching us that all of wisdom was hewn out of the Torah as a source" [Natziv]. However, something precedes the Torah, and that is Derech Eretz, natural behavior. It is written, "'... to guard the path of the Tree of Life' [Bereishit 3:24] – the path is 'derech' – Derech Eretz – and life is the Torah" [Vayikra Rabba 9]. And the famous words of Rabbi Chaim Vital are known – that the Torah had no need to command us about behavior because that is natural for mankind and there is no need to give any explicit commands about it. He wrote, "The basis of observing the mitzvot is to maintain proper behavior, and not to do the opposite."

The foundation of all the good traits and their opposites is what the sages have taught us: "Whoever maintains these three traits is a student of our Patriarch Avraham, while somebody who maintains three opposite traits is a student of the evil one, Bilam. The traits of the students of Avraham are: A good eye, a lack of pride, and a lowly soul." [Avot 5:19]. The SHELAH writes that we can derive from these three traits that "jealousy, lust, and honor can cause a man to be removed from this world." The Maharal wrote that "the opposites of these three bad traits are Torah, worship, and kindness," which help maintain a person. And these traits are represented by the three steps leading up to the Menorah. In order to disseminate the Torah by lighting the lamps, we must first prepare them. This means we must refine our moral traits, the three steps, for Derech Eretz came before the Torah.

It is said that a Torah student once passed a midget on the street. This reminded him of a halacha that he had been taught in the yeshiva. He lifted the midget off his feet and shook him shook him with enthusiasm, similar to the way we wave a lulav on Succot, and he recited a blessing, "He who makes unusual creatures."

Rav Kook wrote, keeping such incidents in mind, "The fear of heaven must never replace the natural moral traits of a person, for if it does it is no longer pure fear of heaven. The sign of pure fear of heaven is that it raises the morality which comes naturally to a person to a higher level than would be if not for the natural behavior. If, on the other hand, we can think of fear of heaven which is such that without its influence we would act in a better way... and the fear of heaven leads to a diminished level of Derech Eretz, then that fear of heaven is improper." [Orot Hakodesh, 3; Rosh Davar, page 27].

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