This week, in Parshas Mishpotim, we see the grandeur and glory of Matan Torah from Parshas Yisro segue into the practical details of the actual laws of the Torah. The two parshiyos are dependent upon each other. The incredible revelation at the mountain lives on through the Torah and these halachos, which are comprised of the rules and boundaries that govern everyday life.
There is an additional layer to the connection. It lies in the precise and perfect way these parshiyos discuss Matan Torah by informing us not only of the deliverance of the Ten Commandments, but also what preceded that world-changing occurrence.
The discussion of Matan Torah is preceded by the story of Yisro, father-in-law of Moshe. He came to join the Jewish people, and while he was with them, he dispensed advice to Moshe. The leader of the Jewish people treated Moshe’s heathen relative as a prince, imparting the lesson to all that “derech eretz kodmah laTorah.”
Prior to ascending to heaven to accept the Luchos, Moshe Rabbeinu served as a waiter at a meal that was held to honor his father-in-law. Part of his preparation for speaking to Hashem and delivering the Torah was to engage in acts portraying humility and respect for others to impart to Klal Yisroel that without them, we are not worthy of Torah.
Common decency and proper manners are prerequisites to Torah. A person who is not a mentch cannot be a student of Torah and lacks in his observance of the Torah’s teachings.
It’s interesting that in Lashon Kodesh, the language of reality, the trait of courteousness, or dignity, is referred to as derech eretz.
What does derech eretz really mean and why is it used in this context?
The Alter of Kelm states that it refers to the need for people to conform to what is socially acceptable and forego their wants for the benefit of the communal good of the land. This is the intention of Chazal who say (Kiddushin 40b), “Kol she’ein bo derech eretz eino min hayishuv – Whoever is lacking in the attribute of derech eretz is not a proper citizen.” The world is bigger and broader than any one of us. We have to adapt and develop ourselves to live in harmony with its demands.
Before we can receive the Torah as a nation and individually, we have to perfect our middos and conform with decency, respect and proper regard for the feelings of others. In our superficial world where people crave attention, feelings of others are sacrificed on the altar of instant gratification. We put people down with arrogance and spite, and give little thought to the effect of our spoken words, as long as they elicit laughs and provide a momentary jolt.
The Torah is replete with lessons of derech eretz, from early in Bereishis until the end of Devorim. We are all familiar, as well, with Pirkei Avos and Maseches Derech Eretz. And following the period of Chazal, all through the ages of the Gaonim, Rishonim and Acharonim, down to our day, the great people of Am Yisroel have always excelled in middos tovos, and written and spoken extensively about the way we should behave with each other and with members of the other nations of the world.
The Igeres HaRamban is a letter for the ages, in which the famed teacher of our nation writes to always speak gently and to be humble. He says to treat every person as if they are better than you and always conduct yourself as if you are before Hashem.
This is the way of a Torah Jew, in our day as well. Every time we address a person, it should be as if we care about that person and are mindful of their needs and feelings. Every casual comment reflects on us and our people. Someone who doesn’t treat people properly is engaging in chillul Hashem, the worst sin of all.
The Mesillas Yeshorim states that a person should always speak respectfully and not in an embarrassing fashion. He quotes the Gemara (Yoma 86a) which says that people should always address others in a calm tone.
Being a good Jew means not talking to people in a tactless, offensive manner.
It begins by training children at a young age to behave nicely, not to scream in the presence of older people, and to address others softly and with respect. If not properly educated, cute children grow to be overly aggressive loudmouths. It is only through care, devotion and love that children can be successfully guided not to be egocentric.
A parent who slackens in the responsibility to be mechaneich his children properly is guilty when the child misbehaves. Though we view the child as the one with aberrant behavior, we cannot expect any better from a young person who was never taught how to walk, talk and conduct himself in public.
Parshas Yisro introduces the receiving of the Aseres Hadibros with the account of Yisro’s arrival to teach us to treat people respectfully.
In Parshas Mishpotim, we learn that when asked by Moshe if they would accept the Torah, the Jewish people answered unanimously, “Na’aseh venishma. We will do and we will hear.”
There is extensive discussion regarding the enormity of the response, as the Jews agreed to observe the mitzvos before knowing what they were, stating first, “Na’aseh, we will do the will of Hashem,” and then, “Nishma, we will hear the laws.”
Perhaps we can explain the statement a little differently than it is commonly understood.
Maybe we can understand that what the Jews were really saying back then was “na’aseh,” we will do what it takes to prove ourselves worthy of the Torah, and na’aseh, we will become those people and prepare properly. Not only will we purify our bodies and our souls so that we can become higher, holier people, but we will improve our middos. We know that without proper derech eretz, we cannot merit the Torah.
Perhaps we can explain that the word “na’aseh” hints to the first time that the word is used in the Torah. When He created man, Hashem said, “Na’aseh odom – Let us make man.” Although expressing Himself that way could hint to scoffers that Hashem required the help of others, it is written that way in the Torah as a lesson in derech eretz and how to speak to people. Be inclusive and kind. Make them feel part of what is happening without talking down to them.
Prior to accepting the Torah at Har Sinai, the people joined together with humility and proclaimed, “Na’aseh.” We will hearken back to the lesson learned from the first biblical use of the word. “Na’aseh.” We will be humble, kind and thoughtful. We will be a people of derech eretz. “Na’aseh.” We are committed to be the fine and holy “odom” Hashem intended for us to be when He proclaimed, “Na’aseh odom.” We will be human beings ready to be receptacles for the Torah’s light.
Masters of halacha and great talmidei chachomim embody that derech eretz, the innate respect needed to be a vessel for Torah. And we all can, as well.
Rav Chaim Vital famously asks why the Torah does not make any mention of the obligation to possess proper middos, fundamental as they are to serving Hashem. In his Sefer Sha’arei Kedusha, Rav Chaim explains that the Torah is only given to people with refined character. It is kodmah laTorah, a precondition to the Torah being received.
After Rav Reuven Grozovsky suffered a debilitating stroke, his talmidim took turns assisting him throughout the day. The bochurim would help him wash negel vasser, wrap tefillin on his arm and head, and hold his siddur.
The rosh yeshiva’s hands would occasionally shake, making the task difficult. One day, a bochur who had not previously been in the rotation had the zechus of being meshamesh the rosh yeshiva. The boy was quite nervous, and as Rav Reuven’s hand shook, the anxious boy poured out the contents of the negel vasser cup, completely missing the hands of the rosh yeshiva. Humiliated, the boy tried again. He was already so frantic that the water ended up on Rav Reuven’s bed and clothing.
The boy stopped and calmed himself before trying a third time, and he successfully washed Rav Reuven’s hands. He helped put the rosh yeshiva’s tefillin on for him and assisted him in saying the brachos. He was ready to leave when Rav Reuven called him over and thanked him, chatting with him for several moments.
Calmed and relieved, the bochur left.
Later, he learned that the rosh yeshiva had never before spoken of mundane matters while wearing tefillin. Rav Reuven saw the bochur’s embarrassment and forfeited his own kabbolah to put the young man at ease.
Kavod for a talmid.
His meticulously observed custom was put aside in favor of derech eretz, which precedes Torah and is the backdrop for all of the Torah.
Not just gedolei Torah, but Torah personalities – machzikei Torah, lomdei Torah, those who revere the Torah – have always conducted themselves with the utmost derech eretz.
Reb Moshe Reichmann was a master of dignity and respect. When he entered a boardroom, associates would instinctively rise in deference and, as a construction worker commented after Reb Moshe’s passing, no one would use inappropriate language in his presence. It was unthinkable.
His role as a mechubad came because he was a mechabeid. He respected everyone and therefore everyone respected him.
A close friend and chavrusah remembered how one Shabbos afternoon, after completing their learning seder, they walked to shul for Mincha. As they entered the large bais medrash, they realized that the rov was in the middle of speaking and the regular Mincha minyan was taking place in a side room. The chavrusah slipped out. He soon noticed that Reb Moshe didn’t follow him to daven Mincha in the other room.
Later, Reb Moshe explained his reasoning. “I figured that I would be able to find a later minyan, and if not, I could daven by myself, because once my entrance was noticed, if I were to turn around and step out, that would have been disrespectful to the rov. So I stayed until he finished.”
Those who give respect get respect in return.
The Beirach Moshe of Satmar recounted that when he was a young man in Sighet, there was a fabulously wealthy shoemaker in town. A fine though simple person, no one in his family had any wealth. He didn’t inherit the money, and as a practicing shoemaker, there was no way that he was earning it from making and repairing shoes.
The future Satmar Rebbe waited for the appropriate time to ask the man his secret. It was a festive occasion when he asked him about the source of his wealth.
The shoemaker began his tale: “It was your grandfather, the Atzei Chaim, the rov of this city, who blessed me. I’ll tell you the story.
“The rebbe needed a pair of shoes and his gabbai came to my shop, providing me with the measurements of the rebbe’s feet and ordering a pair of shoes. A few days later, the gabbai returned and demanded the shoes. I told him that I was working on them, but they were not yet finished. I asked him to return in a few days.
“For some reason, he was very insistent. He said that he needs the shoes right then and that I must give them to him. I did as he asked and gave him the shoes. He paid me and left.
“The gabbai ran to the rebbe and presented them to him. The footwear looked complete, so neither the rebbe nor the gabbai examined them carefully enough to note that a nail had not yet been removed from one of the shoes.
“When the rebbe put on the shoe, that nail cut into his foot. He began to experience pain and bled profusely.
“When I came to shul, the rebbe called me over to a private corner and rebuked me for not finishing the job and for giving him a shoe with a nail in it. He asked me to be more careful in the future because poor workmanship can cause pain and wounds.
“He was the rov and I was a simple shoemaker, so I knew my place and would never argue with him. I held my head low and accepted his words in silence.
“When the rebbe left to return home, the gabbai came clean and told the rebbe what really happened. He accepted the blame upon himself. The rebbe was crestfallen.
“I was sitting in my humble shop in my work clothes fixing a shoe. I looked up, and there, in front of me, was the rebbe. The holy rebbe was at my table. He was weeping. He couldn’t stop crying. He begged me for forgiveness. I also began crying.
“I didn’t answer him when he spoke me that morning in shul, but believe me, I was hurt. I was so hurt. I began to cry uncontrollably when reminded of what happened.
“So there was the rebbe, begging me to forgive him, saying, ‘Zeitz moichel,’ again and again, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to get over the thought that I had been careless.
“Finally, the rebbe said, ‘The Hungarian state lottery is taking place this week. Go buy a ticket. That will be payment for my having thought ill of you.’
“With that, I was able to forgive him. I told him that I was moichel him b’lev sholeim and he left. I ran across the street and bought a ticket. Now you know how I became wealthy.”
The derech eretz of a poor, simple shoemaker earned him riches he could never dream of. His manners, his decency and his humility made him worthy of blessing.
We don’t behave the way we do in order to earn the respect of others or to win lotteries. We act that way because we are bnei and bnos Torah. We don’t just look at the here and now. We don’t put ourselves in positions we don’t belong. And we don’t speak rashly or impetuously for fleeting enjoyment or attention.
We recognize our place. We are humble, refined, honest and generous. We endeavor to act in a way that brings honor to us and our people. We seek to always be mekadshei Hashem and to never cause a chillul Hashem.
The Jewish people recognizable by their mercy, self-effacement and the help they render to others, as Chazal (Yevamos 79a – see also Bamidbor Rabba 8) state, “Shlosha simonim yesh b’umah zu, harachmanim, v’habaishonin vgomlei chasodim.”
Reb Yossi Cohen, a talmid of Bais Medrash Elyon, became a successful businessman. He and his wife were once leaving a wedding when they noticed Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky getting his coat. They offered him a ride.
The rosh yeshiva considered it and then asked to see their car. It was a large, luxurious vehicle, and Rav Yaakov peered inside, as if inspecting it, before accepting the offer.
It seemed strange.
Reb Yossi, a talmid chochom and yorei Shomayim, asked the rosh yeshiva for an explanation.
“I realized,” Rav Yaakov said, “that your wife would be sitting in the back if I came along. I wanted to make sure that it is spacious back there and that she won’t be uncomfortable or cramped because of me.”
Respect for a talmid chochom, who returned that very respect.
Proper respect – kavod – is the underpinning of the nation of the Torah. The central theme of the world is “kulo omer kavod,” to reflect the dignity and majesty of the creation. By emulating the middos of Hashem, giving kavod, living with self-respect, and speaking with respect, we raise all of creation.
The smallest Jewish child, regardless of how little he has learned, instinctively feels discomfort when a sefer falls and hurries to give it a kiss. A Torah Jew notices shaimos on the floor and feels a stab of pain.
It is the innate respect that precedes the Torah, the knowledge that more than information, these letters are the means of bringing honor and goodness to ourselves and the world, so we cherish and honor those tiny slips of paper from precious seforim.
We all know the story of the man who told Hillel that he wanted to convert but wishes to hear all of Torah while standing on one leg (Shabbos 31a). Hillel responded with a few, precise words. He said, “D’alach sani lechavroch lo sa’avid… ve’idach peirusha. Zil gemor. Don’t do to your friend that which is despised by you. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.”
Can it be that Hillel summed up the entirety of Torah in a few pithy words? Perhaps what he was telling the man was that if he was seriously interested in studying and observing Torah, he needed to act as the Jews at Har Sinai did and prepare himself to be ready for the Torah. Na’aseh. He should accept upon himself the obligations of derech eretz. When you have done that, the Torah becomes relevant to you, nishma.
Rid yourself of hate and acrimony. Speak nicely and softly, and put down the stick. Feel for others. Think about the consequences of your words and actions. “V’idach peirusha,” the rest is commentary. Internalize becoming a mentch, a person worthy of Torah, so that we can study its holy words.