Derech Eretz: A Sermon for Rosh HaShana
Wait just a minute, I have one more text message I need to respond to and then I’ll put this on vibrate and be right with you. . . ) Here it is Rosh HaShana, a day to address grand themes, deeply meaningful and inspiring themes, themes of ultimate importance. However, I have chosen instead to speak to you about something petty, in fact, about a lot of petty things, because, more and more, the lack of civil behavior has become a plague in our society. It was just last month that a flight attendant on Jet Blue bailed out of the flight. An editorial in the AZ Republic commented that, “Good manners weren’t designed to just win your grandmother’s approval. The purpose of good manners is to keep civilization civil and to allow people who may have differing opinions to engage in conversation.”
 “Manners? What Manners?”, read the headline in the USA Today on July 22nd. The High Holidays were barely over last year when I wondered what would be an appropriate theme for this year. My question was answered when I read Harvey Mackay’s column a week after Yom Kippur: “Civility, Good Manners are Timeless- and Free.”
We really don’t need newspapers to alert us to this epidemic. When was the last time you had all your invited guests RSVP in a timely fashion to your invitation. Enough said? A recent survey invited readers to write in regarding what was the rudest thing that had happened to them lately? Responses poured in by the hundreds. A lady in Indiana reported that she and her husband went to a buffet restaurant. Her husband put his jacket on the booth, and they laid out table settings. When they returned from the buffet line, they found another couple sitting in “their” booth, eating. She concludes, “My husband asked the man to pass him his jacket and silverware, which he did, without a word. We had to find another table to eat at.” A capital offense? Hardly. Khutzpadik? Guilty as charged.
And this story from California — “A woman in my casual carpool was drinking coffee from an insulated coffee mug. When we reached the drop-off point, she dumped half the contents onto the back seat of my car as she got out. She said, ‘Well, it doesn’t look like the first time that’s happened,’ then shut the door and walked away. There was no apology and not even a token attempt to clean the spill.”
I’m told that in some parts of the country parents are required to put two deposits down to reserve a location for a Bar or Bat Mitzva celebration — one to hold the room and a second to cover the costs of vandalism that may be done to the facility. The message is clear. Our kids have no concept of the value and respect with which the property of others ought to be treated. We can expect that they will wreak havoc at the event. Simply put, they have no derech eretz. Derech eretz in Hebrew literally means “the way of the land”, but it is the term we use to describe good manners, common decency, civil behavior.
George Will offered his own, “Theory of Vulgarity in Our Contemporary Life.” In his column he referred to “today’s casual coarseness” which he described as a “facet of a larger phenomenon of which incivility is a part.” “Incivility”, he suggests, “is becoming normal.” He also suggests that the pervasive use of technology has cut us off from social connection, leaving us dissociated from any social context and resulting in pervasive boorishness. “Can you hear me now?” This sense of disconnection explains why people will exhibit behavior while driving that they would never consider if they were in situations where they might be recognizable and accountable as individuals.
I’m sure you could add your own examples and I think I’ve made my point. When the Jewish people left Egypt and Moses needed to provide water for them in the wilderness, he was instructed to strike a rock and water spewed forth. After the people had experienced freedom and a new generation arose, God told Moses to speak to a rock to bring forth water. Why the difference? In a free society to function successfully, we must learn to speak to each other, to find gentle ways to live together and not resort immediately to violence, whether physical or verbal.
The notion of what is socially acceptable changes from one generation to the next, but throughout the generations Judaism has emphasized the principle, “Derech eretz kadma la-kol- Good manners comes before everything else.” What does it mean to be a religious person? The answer of our tradition is that it doesn’t matter how strictly we observe Shabbat, how often we come to shul, whether we keep kosher inside and outside our homes, or even how much we contribute to tzedaka- none of it means anything if we do not live in a gracious manner.
The Seder Eliyahu Rabba (26) depicts God as teaching us, “My beloved children, am I in want of anything that I should request of you? But what I ask of you is that you should love, honor and respect one another.” The way we treat each other is the one thing which is out of God’s control and the ultimate expression of our humanity. Reb Shlomo Carlebach used to say, “God created man with feet so that he could stride ahead, but man generally prefers to advance by using his elbows.”
Our own Rabbi Barton Lee has spent many years studying a text on derech eretz, written in 1885 by Rabbi Joshua Briskin. He quotes Rabbi Briskin, for example, on the subject of table manners: “One should accustom one’s self not to converse at meals with food in his mouth, not even words of Torah- because of the danger lest he swallow so that it goes down the wrong pipe. Further, he should not let the food in his mouth be seen by others while speaking and eating, for that is repulsive.” The category of what constitutes derech eretz, Rabbi Lee concludes, includes things which may be harmful to us as well as things which are offensive to others. Elsewhere in Eliyahu Rabba we are also taught that we should choose as our table companions those from whom we can learn Torah.
What is the ultimate goal of Jewish life? Judaism does not suggest that the highest goal is to withdraw from life and to live a life of contemplation and solitude. Rather, it challenges us to live with all the frustration and temptations of life in the world, and to find a way to elevate every moment, to seek the holiness in our smallest gestures and behaviors.
Since eating is one of our most frequent activities, it makes sense that there is an enormous body of literature offering guidance as to how we might make our eating into a religious activity. We read in the Shulkhan Arukh that, “Even things of personal choice, such as eating and drinking, walking, sitting and standing, sexual intercourse, conversation, and everything connected with the needs of your body- all should be for the service of God, or for something that leads to the service of God.”
Rabbi Abraham of Slonim was a man who knew how to enjoy a meal, “Contrary to what you might think, it is possible sometimes to come closer to God when you are involved in material things like eating and drinking, than when you are involved with ‘religious’ activities like Torah and prayer. Because when the heart opens up due to the sense pleasures, and there is a feeling of satisfaction and happiness, then is the fit time to come close to holiness.”
“Similarly, Rabbi Briskin holds, it is a rule of derech eretz that: ‘one should always be careful that his nose not be runny and that a bad odor not come forth from his mouth’.”
 Wearing nice clothing, which is appropriate to the time and place, is also a concern of derech eretz. Greeting others warmly and greeting them first, using their name if we know it, is one of the principles of derech eretz we can put to use here in our congregation. A contemporary rabbi offers this example, “. . . when I was growing up. . . If you came to the table improperly dressed, my father would just say two words. Derech eretz. And then you went upstairs and changed.”
Watching what we say and how we too often use words to hurt others is critical. The medieval Orchot HaTzaddikim details specific rules for good manners in speech.
 Speak gently- if someone embarrasses or misleads you, do not attack and reciprocate. Share the burdens of others and try to soothe them when they are angry or worried. Avoid speaking about others in a derogatory manner. “Good manners require us not to ask someone for information we know they don’t have, or praise them for virtue or talents they don’t possess, or speak to them in ways which would embarrass them publicly. When we do have to rebuke or criticize people, we are to speak gently and privately to them.”
Our tradition does not tell us that we must be total conformists, that we must abandon our own individuality in order to fit in to a preconceived model of behavior. It does expect us to be sensitive to the situation in which we find ourselves and to conduct ourselves in a manner which will endear rather than alienate us from those around us. So, we read in the Talmud, “A person should not be awake among those who are sleeping, nor sleeping among those who are awake; one should not cry among those who are laughing, nor laugh among those who are crying. One should not stand among those who are sitting, nor sit among those who are standing. One should not study Bible among those who are studying Oral Torah, nor Oral Torah among those who are studying Bible.”
Derech eretz kadma la-kol- good manners are more important than anything else. The midrash relates a poignant tale which illustrates how a great sage learned this lesson- “Rabbi Yannai was taking a walk and he saw a man of impressive appearance. Rabbi Yannai said to him, ‘Would you be my guest?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ So Rabbi Yannai took him to his house, and gave him food and drink. He spoke to him of talmudic matters and found that the man knew nothing; then he spoke about the Mishna, the Aggada and the Bible and saw that the man was ignorant of all of them. Then he said to him, ‘Take the wine cup and recite the blessing.’ The man said, ‘Let Yannai make the blessing in his own house.’ Rabbi Yannai said, ‘Can you repeat what I say to you?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Then say, ‘A dog has eaten Yannai’s bread’.’ The man jumped up, seized Yannai and said, ‘You have my inheritance, which you are withholding from me.’ Yannai said, “What inheritance of yours do I have?’ The man answered, ‘Once I passed a school, and I heard the voices of children reciting, ‘The Torah which Moses commanded us is the inheritance of Jacob’; they did not say, ‘the inheritance of the congregation only of Yannai’.’ Then Rabbi Yannai said, ‘What merit have you, what good deeds have you done, that you should eat at my table?’ The man said, ‘I never heard malicious gossip and repeated it, particularly not to the person being spoken of, nor did I ever see two people quarreling without making peace between them.’ Said Rabbi Yannai, ‘You have such fine qualities, such derech eretz, and I called you a dog’.”
 The lesson, my friends, is simple. It’s great to have you all here in shul. But the true test of how religious you are will come when you close the siddur and go out into the courtyard. Will you treat each other with kindness and consideration, with derech eretz, or will you trample each other in your haste to be the first one out of the parking lot? As Leonard Fein put it so succinctly, “It is not the services we attend but the services we perform which define us.”
When we close the ark and put the Torah away, we sing, “Dracheha darchei noam, v’kol netivoteha shalom- The ways of Torah are ways of pleasantness, and all her pathways are peace.” This is the challenge for all of us as the new year begins, to make pleasantness and peacefulness the guiding principle in all our relationships. Derech eretz kadma la-kol- Good manners, civil behavior, are the most important thing.
© Rabbi Bonnie Koppell