Chayei Sarah 5777: Derech Eretz Kadmah LaTorah and Thoughts on Giving Thanks

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Thanksgiving one of America’s favorite holidays, loaded with food, family, and loads of seemingly “yehareg v’al yaavor” holiday traditions.  I look at this particular legal holiday bearing in mind the challenges and bumps in the road that have peppered my own life, yet I still find an overwhelming amount of things to be thankful for. 

-I do not understand everything that Hashem does, but so thankful He takes care of me.

-I’m thankful to be part of amazing, supportive families that will do anything at the drop of a hat.

-I’m thankful for having an amazing wife, my greatest cheerleader, who encourages me to be the best person I can be.

-There are numerous things I wish I had that I do not. Yet, next to the checklist of what I do have, I am thankful to be so incredibly lucky.

-I’m thankful for a Cleveland Cavaliers championship.

-I’m thankful for living in a democracy. I do not agree with protests or demonstrations, but I am indeed thankful for the right to have them and not be persecuted. I have not always rejoiced in the outcomes of our democratic elections, but I am undoubtedly thankful for them. 

-I do not always agree with what’s going on in the State of Isreal but thankful that there is one. There are plenty of people alive today who lived in a world where that was not the case, those who have seen the consequences of what that world looked like. 

There’s something nice about the entire country coming together, if only for one night, to recognize what’s important in life and to be thankful for it. As Jews, we are commanded at various different times to give thanks. When we encounter a dangerous scenario, we recite the bracha of “Hagomel lechayavim tovot shegemalani kol tov”, that we thank God for bestowing His kindness upon them in a time of need. Many people know this blessing today as it’s also widely recited after travel across the ocean.

Furthermore, Jews thank Hashem not only for saving us from peril, but actually offer our thanks and appreciation every single day. Upon arising in the morning, the first thing we are to do is recite Modeh Ani, literally thanking the Almighty for restoring our soul to us that day, having great faith in all of us that we can work toward accomplishing the tasks He’s set forth for us. Another such benediction of thanks appears in the Shemoneh Esrei with the Modim prayer, an entire paragraph where we thank Hashem. While the chazzan recites this prayer, the congregation is to say a different version of Modim. The Abudraham comments that when it comes to giving thanks, this is something that cannot be done for us by an emissary. We must each individually offer our own message of gratitude.

Giving thanks ties very nicely into derech eretz. How wonderful does it feel when someone does something great for you? How wonderful does it feel when we do something for someone else? Saying thank you is a natural response in line with derech eretz. It’s the proper thing to do. Yet, it doesn’t always happen, and not only because actions can sometimes be done in anonymity when the giver is not always known to the recipient. If someone performs a great chessed for you on countless occasions, will you only thank them once? Of course not.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe, the famed mashgiach and mussar giant, sheds light on instances of the primacy of derech eretz as found in Parshat Chayei Sarah. 

Rashi explains (Bereishis 24:42) from the Midrash that Rav Acha recounts that ordinary conversation of the servants of the Patriarchs are more dear to Hashem than the Torah of their sons. The proof for this is that section dealing with Eliezer is repeated in the Torah, while many other fundamental Torah missives and messages were given only through hints, rather than explicit statements.

What is is about the words of Eliezer that are so dear to Hashem?

Rav Wolbe explains that the words of the servants of the Avot are used to convey guidelines of derech eretz. Eliezer’s actions and expressions were rooted entirely in derech eretz, which is why they were considered so important that they were worth repeating.

Tanna D’vei Eliyahu (1:1) explains the common phrase, “derech eretz kadmah laTorah” that derech eretz precedes Torah. Rav Wolbe connects this idea to grocery shopping. Just as one needs a bag to hold their produce or a carton to hold their eggs, Hashem applies this idea to Torah. The very vessel charged with “containing” the Torah is derech eretz. Derech eretz is defined as the actions and behaviors that a person should recognize as proper without having to be taught. Before a person can properly learn Torah, they must have a proper grounding in seichel (common sense) as to what is right and what is wrong. One who lacks proper derech eretz is compared 2013-01-20 12.07.12 copy.jpgto by our sages as worse than a dead animal (Vayikra Rabbah). Derech eretz enables someone to become a gadol baTorah, a true Torah giant.

The importance of derech eretz can be seen later in the parsha as well. When Eliezer returns to Yitzchak with his bride Rivka, the Torah tells us (24:67) that Yitzchak brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother. Targum Onkelos writes that only after he saw that her middot (character traits) were identical to those of his mother, did he take her as his wife.

This seems puzzling. In the previous pasuk, Eliezer explains to Yitzchak the entire story of his journey. Rashi writes of the various miracles that occurred on the way (shortening the length of his trip and his tefillot being answered unbelievably quickly). What else did Yitzchak need? Weren’t those amazing miracles enough for him to seal the deal, and take Rivka as his wife? What difference do her middot make in the face of these open miracles?

Rav Wolbe answers that even if these miraculous events all pointed one way in proving that she was his match made in heaven, the deciding factor needed to be the character traits of this individual. Incredible events of hashgacha, Divine providence can sometimes cloud our judgement and deviate our minds in terms of what is truly important. Derech eretz is so vital that it comes before Torah! One can spend their entire life devoted to learning Torah, yet if they lack the respect and human decency to be kind to their fellow, it’s as if they have learning nothing at all. Proper derech eretz is the foundation of Klal Yisrael and that’s exactly why Yitzchak needed to be sure of Rivka’s middot before agreeing to marry her.  

Derech eretz is the lifeblood of the Jewish people. Thanksgiving may come only once annually, but derech eretz is an everyday mandate.

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