33 - Situations - If There Is No Torah, There Is No Derech Eretz; If There Is No Derech Eretz, There Is No Torah

The Torah contains many positive commandments and prohibitions that affect a person's character.



Last week’s stretch of the week was:  Go out of your way to greet someone gladly and with kindness that you normally ignore.

Please allow ONE person to share her experience with this exercise for ONE minute. 


Lesson #33


If There Is No Torah, There Is No Derech Eretz; If There Is No Derech Eretz, There Is No Torah

אם אין תורה, אין דרך ארץ; אם אין דרך ארץ, אין תורה

Im Ain Torah, Ain Derech Eretz; Im Ain Derech Eretz, Ain Torah

Perek Gimmul, Mishna Chaf Aleph

Story(based on a true story)

Many years ago I made a terrible mistake that still haunts me to this day.  However, instead of beating myself up over that error, I use it to make sure that I never ever repeat that behavior again.

It began as a weekly shalosh se'udos that my friends and I would put together while our husbands were at shul.  After a while we jokingly coined it “The Shalosh Se'udos Club” and had silly “rules” like if someone new came to join they had to bake something yummy for the group.  We became like sisters, sharing our lives with each other. 

After many years, we had quite a tight group of ladies.  By this point, allowing someone new to join in was not as easy as baking something new.  Occasionally, someone would have a guest over and would bring them for a one time occasion, and it was unspoken that of course that would be fine.   

One day, one of the group had a guest over for lunch who stayed all afternoon, and when shalosh se'udos time came she stayed and joined us.  Her name was Esti, and she was really nice and fit right in with our group.  It was a first for us, but we all invited her back the following week.  All that summer she continued to come and soon she became one of the regular group.   

A few months later, she randomly began to invite her other friends to join without asking us if that would be okay, and the perfect balance the group had once struck was shifted.  However, those of us who noticed were too intimidated to discuss it with our new friend, and so we just let the train wreck gradually happen. 

It all came to a head at my house.  We had started out with six main members, but by that final Shabbos, there must have been at least fifteen women and nine children in my house.  In the dining room, an argument broke when one of the new ladies began to serve a dairy cheese cake she brought with her on the meat dishes I had out.  In the den, several of the unsupervised children got a hold of markers and colored all over the carpet.  It was pure chaos. 

In the end, our core group, including me, decided to go back to our basic group and have shalosh se'udos ourselves quietly, without saying anything at all to the others about our decision or our plans.  Through this decision, we stopped contacting Esti entirely.  We had hoped to save ourselves from all the hectic drama.   

Looking back, our actions weren’t thoughtful or kind, or honest.  Months later I saw Esti at an event in our neighborhood and I said a casual hi to her.  I was shocked when her eyes welled up with tears and she didn’t answer me; she just turned around and walked away. 

I brought this up to our Shalosh Se'udos Club members a day later with the idea that perhaps with our actions we’d hurt people’s feelings, especially Esti’s, because she was really a good friend of ours that we just dropped.  Regardless of actions taken by Esti and her friends, we still had to take responsibility for our own actions and the unnecessarily painful method we used to stop the situation; we had lacked derech eretz in our handling of the situation, and the Torah demanded more of us, even if we were confronted by a lack of derech eretz from others.  And our disregard showed a lack of ahavas yisrael

I was met with interesting reactions.  I found that though they felt a little guilty, the majority of the women didn’t want to own any responsibility for our behaving badly by the way we ended things.  Later, I discussed at length with my husband how we as a group could and should have been braver in sharing our feelings with Esti as she brought in new people, so as to avoid the final hectic overwhelming end.  At the very least, we should have been honest and clear in the end, and acted as better friends. 

For my part in all of this, I wrote Esti a long sincere apology letter explaining that I understood I hurt her feelings, that I was so sorry I personally had a part in treating her badly and that I learned from this experience and would try hard to never do this to anyone else again.  And I asked humbly for her to forgive me.  I shared my growth with my friends at our next shalosh se'udos. 

One other lady from our group also apologized personally to Esti.  I’m not sure if anything ever happened between any of the other ladies and Esti.  I do know this:  The Shalosh Se'udos Club gradually dissolved, and Esti forgave me and we are still friends.  The whole situation taught me the biggest lesson of true derech eretz and the beauty of ahavas yisrael done right.

Pirkay Avos:

"אלעזר בן עזריה אומר:  ... אם אין תורה, אין דרך ארץ; אם אין דרך ארץ, אין תורה..."

"Rabi Elazar ben Azaria omer:  Im ain Torah, ain derech eretz.  Im ain derech eretz, ain Torah... ."

"Rabi Elazar ben Azaria says:  If there is no Torah, there is no derech eretz; If there is no derech eretz, there is no Torah. "(Perek Gimmul, Chaf Alef).

While some commentators interpret the phrase “derech eretz” as the way of nature and man’s role in it as farmer, builder and so forth, or as a livelihood, derech eretz is typically defined as good manners and adherence to a social code.

Our sages describe derech eretz as proper behavior and refined character traits.  Derech is literally a “path” to a goal.  When a person has derech eretz , he devotes his entire life, with all of his thoughts and actions, to a single purpose.  In order to know his goal and the proper path to attain it, a person needs proper guideposts.  But “if there is no Torah”-which points out the proper path-“there is no dereh eretz”-a person cannot know the proper path. 

It is no coincidence that both proper behavior and halacha derive from the same source, for we can learn proper behavior from halacha.  The Torah contains many positive commandments and prohibitions that affect a person’s character.  In addition, the Oral Torah has many directives and hundreds of statements, midrashim and sayings that deal with the topic of derech eretz.  “If there is no Torah”, each individual might create his own, lone path and develop his own idiosyncratic rules of morality and ethics-something liable to drag down an entire society.

The Torah makes it possible for a person to attain derech eretz in its highest manifestation.  But, at the very least, someone who wishes to succeed in his mastery of Torah must acquire the same level of derech eretz as any reasonably well-mannered human being possesses. 

If a person lacks positive character traits, if he does not act in a pleasant manner, he will find it impossible to absorb and receive Torah.  How could he properly learn the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” if he remains under the dictatorial sway of his ego?  The Torah cannot enter the heart of a person who lacks derech eretz.  Nor can it long remain with a person whose level of derech eretz is not commensurate with his Torah studies.

(Reproduced from Rav Lau on Pirkei Avos and from Pirkei Avos with Ideas and Insights of the Sfas Emes and other Chassidic Masters, with permission of the copyright holders, ArtScroll / Mesorah Publications, Ltd.)

Discussion Question Options:

What are ways the storyteller and her friends could have used better derech eretz in avoiding hurting Esti’s feelings?

Why does doing the right thing sometimes feel so hard to do?

What is the best way to teach others and our children derech eretz?

Stretch of the Week:

Do something this week consciously using both derech eretz and ahavas yisrael together.



Stretch Of The Week