When I was in 11th grade, I was privileged to spend a few weeks learning in the Yeshiva Gedolah of Johannesburg as part of their winter vacation program.
Like many teenagers, I was trying to figure out a system of priorities in life and Yiddishkeit. I realized, already then, that it's not always intuitive to understand what's important, what's extraneous and what's incorrect. This challenge is constantly compounded by multiple factors: community standards, family customs and differing opinions.
Even today, I'm working to establish rubrics and perspectives through which I should see the world. I imagine that this will be a life long project.
But I recall that winter that I approached the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Azriel Goldfein זצ״ל and asked him what he thought about me taking on the custom of Chalav Yisrael. He looked at me intently and then asked: "If you decide to eat only Chalav Yisrael, what will that mean when you spend Shavuos at your aunt? Will you be able to eat her cheesecake?" "No, I suppose not," I replied. "Do you think that will upset her?" "Probably." "Well then, it seems that you have a choice to make. Are you going to be Machmir to observe Chalav Yisrael, or are you going to be Machmir to have Derech Eretz for your aunt?"
"Always remember," he concluded, "There is no such thing as a Chumrah (a stringency) that doesn't come with a Kulah (a leniency) somewhere else."
This idea - conveyed in a few short moments - has been cemented in my mind since then. It is possibly one of the most powerful tools to asses and determine the right cause of action.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement, was famous for instilling this sense of priority, as is evident by this, now famous, Pre-Pesach story:
When he was older, he no longer went to bake his own matzah before Pesach, but rather he asked his students to bake his matzas mitzvah for him. The students asked their teacher, “What are the ‘Chumros‘ (stringencies) the Rebbe practices during the time he bakes matzah?” All sorts of different stringencies are practiced by righteous individuals while baking their Seder Matzahs. They asked Rav Yisrael Salanter which Chumrah he was particular about. He told them “I am very careful not to yell at the woman who cleans up between every batch of matzah baking. She is a widow. Please speak kindly with her.”
Parents have often mentioned to me that they are at a loss to determine which, if any mitzvos should be "forced" onto their children. "My son doesn't want to come to minyan... My daughter doesn't want to wear skirts...(etc.) Is it right to force them? Or will it backfire? Will they simply rebel? And if don't will they think it is unimportant?"
I don't have any axiom or rubric to answer those questions - I think that they are particular to each parent and child and mitzvah. But there is a category of mitzvos that we most certainly should insist on: Derech Eretz.
Derech Eretz is universally understood. Insisting that our children are menchen is a Torah and societal imperative. Our morning davening contains the words: לעולם יהא אדם ירא שמים - A person should always be fearing of Heaven. My Rebbe, Rav Blachman often told us that their is a comma here; לעולם יהא אדם - You should first be a person, a mench. Only then can you be a ירא שמים.
Tragically, observant Jews are often not well known for their Derech Eretz. The COVID pandemic has brought this to a fore in a powerful and upsetting way.
But thankfully, overwhelmingly, I think our community is likely a little above average in the Derech Eretz category. This doesn't mean that there isn't work to do in the ways that we speak, interact and educate. But at least in theory, we believe in treating all people with respect and dignity. We try to live with the feeling that each person is created in the image of God, and we grapple honestly with areas of Halacha that don't fit comfortably into our understanding of morality.
Rav Desler (חלק ד עמוד רמד) explains that דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה means that being a Mench is the prerequisite to a life of Torah. Without it, there can be no success in Talmud Torah.
But there is a fallacy that I fear we have fallen into. Classically, we understand that the value of "Derech Eretz" finds expression in מצות בין אדם לחברו - mitzvos between a person and their friend. And we assume that "Torah" is equated with מצות בין אדם למקים - mitzvos between a person and Hashem.
But this plainly incorrect.
Sefer Vayikra opens with Hashem calling Moshe to the Mishkan. Why does Moshe need to the called? He was the one who build the Mishkan?!
The Talmud (יומא ד ב) explains:
וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר לָמָּה הִקְדִּים קְרִיאָה לְדִיבּוּר לִימְּדָה תּוֹרָה דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ שֶׁלֹּא יֹאמַר אָדָם דָּבָר לַחֲבֵירוֹ אֶלָּא אִם כֵּן קוֹרֵהוּ
The verse says: “And He called unto Moses, and the Lord spoke unto him from within the Tent of Meeting, saying”. Why does the verse mention calling before speaking, and God did not speak to him at the outset? The Torah is teaching etiquette: A person should not say anything to another unless he calls him first.
At first blush, this seems like a nice idea; a good lesson in politeness and Derech Eretz. But this defies our categories. Chazal are telling us here that from Moshe's relationship with Hashem, we should learn how to treat our friends. Apparently, we are to act towards Hashem with Derech Eretz as well!
Having Derech Eretz for Hashem might seem strange; until we realize that beyond the halachik characterizations of mitzvos, Hashem wants us to have a relationship with Him.
This relationship might be different from others in our lives, but the fundamentals of Derech Eretz remain the same.
Consider, for example, that a parent wants nothing more than their children to love each other. The parent will often prioritize siblings getting along, over almost anything else.
But imagine a child that, after years of hearing the importance of being a good sibling, declares: "My parent doesn't really care about my love and respect of them as long as I'm nice to my brother and brush my teeth."
That would be a tragedy. That's the wrong conclusion entirely!
Shlomo Hamelech makes the argument for relating to Hashem as a friend in Mishlei (כז י):
רֵעֲךָ וְרֵעַ אָבִיךָ אַל תַּעֲזֹב - Your friend and your father's friend, you should not abandon.
Rashi explains here: Who is your friend and your father's friend. Hashem; who loves you and loves your ancestors.
Many of the Rishonim and Acharonim ask why it is that we will not be making a bracha on the Mitzvah of Telling the Story of the Exodus on Seder Night. And there are many explanations.
But The Sfas Emes writes simply: We never make a bracha on mitzvos that come from being a mench. We don't make a bracha on honoring parents, giving tzedeka or visiting the sick, though all of them are obligatory. We would have done it with or without a commandment. Likewise, our obligation of Telling the Story of how Hashem saved us is a simple expression of immense gratitude! If we can't say thank you to Hashem for saving us, loving us and giving us a life and future, then we're simply jerks.
Perhaps this should reframe the way we think of leniencies and stringencies. Perhaps this will redefine our focus in preparing for Pesach. It is worth considering: in which of our practices are we trying to build closer relationships with our friends, our families and Hashem?
Hashem should help us to become people of principles and priorities. We should live lives of Derech Eretz and closeness. And perhaps, we, just like Moshe, will be called back to the Mikdash.