Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz candidly states that a person can keep all the mitzvot
and still be on the wrong derech (path) in life, and be held accountable by God
for his mistakes (Sichot Mussar 31:99). He writes that even good intentions and
devotion cannot save a person from the responsibility of not properly examining
his derech, and for not seriously considering the possibility that he may be on
the wrong path.
Apart from praying for guidance – which is important –
Reb Chaim gives guidelines for how one can assess the authenticity of one’s
He cites the verse from Psalms as the standard by which all of
one’s Torah should be measured: “The commandments of Hashem are yesharim”
(19:9), meaning that the commandments of G-d reflect the value of yashrut, which
literally means “straight,” but reflects much broader values of integrity and
uprightness. This, says Reb Chaim, is the ultimate test of one’s derech: If the
Torah and mitzvot one performs reflect the value of yashrut, one is on the right
path. If not, even though on the surface one appears to be doing everything in
accordance with G-d’s will by obeying His mitzvot, in fact he is fundamentally
at odds with Hashem.
Reb Chaim says that derech eretz (courtesy) is one
important part of what yashrut means. Therefore, everything that a person does,
including in the realm of mitzvot, must be guided by values of derech eretz and
middot tovot (good character).
He notes that according to a Midrash cited
by Rashi, Moses questioned G-d’s command to count the tribe of Levi, including
the babies of at least one month, saying that he was unable to fulfill the
instruction because it would mean infringing on the families’ privacy. Granting
his objection, G-d told him to go to each tent, and while Moses stood outside, a
heavenly voice called out to him the number of people in each
Reb Chaim explains that though Hashem had given an explicit
command to count the people, Moses fulfilled the task in a way that would not
violate the principles of derech eretz. Yet the Torah states that Moses followed
G-d’s instruction “as commanded.”
(Numbers 3:16). He contends that the
phrase “as commanded” is to be understood literally, for it was as if G-d
actually commanded him not to enter the houses, but to wait outside for the
Divine voice to supply the needed information. Reb Chaim concludes that any
instruction from Hashem must be interpreted as consistently as possible with the
principles of derech eretz and middot tovot.
Hakarat hatov (gratitude) is
another critical aspect of yashrut.
Reb Chaim again cites the example of
Moses. Commanded by G-d to go to war against Midian, Moses sent Pinhas to lead
the people into battle. Viewed superficially, Moses did not do as he was told by
The Midrash cited by Rashi recounts that Moses felt it would be
wrong for him to fight against Midian, for he owed that country a debt of
gratitude. It had provided him with refuge when he fled from Egypt. As gratitude
is an important Torah value, it follows that Moses had to interpret G-d’s
command to go to war against Midian in a way that was compatible with
Reb Chaim cites a Midrash which is very harsh in its criticism of a
talmid hacham (Torah scholar) who does not conduct himself with derech eretz and
middot tovot, saying that “a carcass is better than him.” (Vayikra Raba 1:15).
The Midrash makes this comment in the context of praising the exemplary derech
eretz of Moses. The Book of Leviticus begins with G-d’s invitation to Moses to
enter the Mishkan (the tent of meeting) in order to hear the contents of the
Torah as part of the ongoing revelation that had begun on Mount
Despite his familiarity and closeness to G-d, Moses was not so
presumptuous as to enter uninvited.
The Midrash points out the extent of
Moses’s humility and sensitivity: “Go and learn from Moses, father of wisdom,
father of the prophets, who took Israel out of Egypt, and through him many
miracles and wonders were done on the Red Sea; and he went up to the heights of
Heaven and brought down the Torah from Heaven and was involved in the work [of
building] the Mishkan, and yet would not go into the inner chamber until [G-d]
called to him.”
Good character and derech eretz prevented Moses from
entering without being called to do so. In contrast, one of the worst character
traits from the perspective of our Sages is brazenness. “The brazen-faced [go]
to Gehinom [Purgatory],” says the Mishna. The opposite quality is gentle
sensitivity, a quality connected to humility – epitomized by Moses.
Chaim (Sichot Mussar 32:5) notes that from this Midrash, we learn that even with
all of Moses’s greatness and awesome achievements for Hashem, Torah and klal
Yisrael (the Jewish people), even a carcass would have been better than him if
he had acted with a lack of derech eretz. This example reinforces the principle
that a lack of menschlichkeit (human decency) puts a person on the wrong derech,
no matter what other good qualities he may have.
In reference to this,
Rabbi Aharon Kotler comments, “Not only are we obligated to the priority of
derech eretz before Torah, but also if there is a lack of derech eretz, all of a
person’s Torah is to be considered nothing; and not only is his Torah...
considered unimportant, even his very essence is nullified.”
explains that the reason derech eretz comes before Torah is that Torah was given
to a person to elevate him and bring him into a state of closeness to Hashem and
to eternal life – but these levels of Torah were given only to a person who has
already reached the level of completeness of what it means to be a human being.
And it is only through attainment and practice of the values of derech eretz
that a person becomes a human being in the complete sense of the word. The image
of a carcass conveys the seriousness with which our sages regard the precept of
derech eretz, implying that without derech eretz and character refinement, a
person is sub-human.
Reb Aharon explains that the reason the Midrash
refers to a talmid hacham – even though everybody has similar duties of derech
eretz – is that a breach of derech eretz by a talmid hacham is considered even
more severe because of the hillul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name) that is
caused. Disgrace to the Torah is brought about by a person who is recognized as
having such a strong bond to the Torah and yet “is dirty and despicable with bad
deeds and bad thoughts.” He cites sources to explain that the Torah is like the
daughter of Hashem who is taken in marriage by a person who learns. If the
princess marries a coarse and crude person, she is brought into a state of
disgrace by her husband. So, too, the Torah is brought into a state of disgrace
by a learned person who does not conduct himself with derech eretz.The
writer is chief rabbi of South Africa. This is an adaptation of an extract from
The Legacy, coauthored by Warren Goldstein and Berel Wein, published by Maggid,
a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem. The book will be launched in Jerusalem
on Tuesday, March 5, at 8 p.m. at the Great Synagogue. For more details of the
book, visit www.korenpub.com.
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