The Way of the Land: The Value of Doing Good
There are at least two reasons to do something in Judaism.
The first is because we must. We must welcome the stranger, celebrate the holidays, work for a better world, study Torah, even teach our children to swim, according to the Talmud. Each of these requirements is called a mitzvah (plural, mitzvot), though common usage equates that Hebrew word instead with “good deed.”
The legalistic nature of Judaism gives many of these do’s and do-not’s technical names, and then elaborates their nuances. For instance, speaking ill of someone else — gossip — gets the name lashon hara, and we’re not allowed to do it, whether it’s true or not, and no matter how much fun it might be. But what if you feel you need to warn a friend about something? What if you’re just so frustrated that you need to talk things out? What about earning a living as a political humorist who mocks public figures? Details like these are fleshed out in discussions, commentaries, discussions on commentaries, and (yes) commentaries on the discussions. This is what we mean by “Torah” in the broadest sense.
These mitzvot are parallel to modern laws, which likewise dictate appropriate and inappropriate behavior.
By contrast, the second reason to do something in Judaism is because we can. This category goes by the Hebrew name derech eretz, literally “the way of the land.” And it refers to treating one another with the sorts of decency and propriety that can’t be legislated but are nonetheless desirable.
There’s no Jewish law against whistling mirthfully at a funeral, an addition to the Talmud explains, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay. And there’s no Jewish law that requires us to tip a waiter, but that doesn’t mean we should skimp on tips, even though, of course, we’ll get our meal even without purposely paying an extra fifteen or twenty percent for it.
Unlike the American secular approach, though, Jewish derech eretz is on a par with Jewish law. “Derech eretz preceded the Torah,” according to tradition, which is to say, the path to the mitzvot of the Torah is paved with the practice of derech eretz. In America, “there’s no law against it” or “there’s no law making me” are often sound excuses. Not so in Judaism.
Curiously, this same term — “the way of the land” — also means “the way things work,” for better or for worse, as it were. In our hometowns, we are judged by our reputation. But — the Talmud warns — on the road we are judged merely by our clothing. Attire is rarely a reliable indicator of anything substantial, but that’s the way it works. Get used to it. It’s not going to change. Derech eretz.
Reading between the lines, we find a message in the way a single term refers variously to courtesy as well as reality. There’s an unspoken hope that the two concepts merge, that generosity, compassion, and civility become so ingrained in our society that we can’t even imagine things being any other way — a time when going the proverbial extra mile is so common that it’s no longer noteworthy.
Particularly at this season of Shavuot, as we acknowledge anew our acceptance of Torah, let us remember not to be satisfied merely doing the good things that we must. Let us also do the good things that we can.
[Originally published in the Vassar Temple Bulletin, June, 2015.]