Parshas Tzav begins with a discussion of the laws involving the removal of the ash from the altar. There were two aspects to this service (as understood by Rashi). The Torah (Leviticus 6:3) first describes the daily terumas hadeshen, in which a portion of the ashes was removed and deposited near the altar (specifically, on the east side of the ramp leading to the altar).
The next verse describes the intermittent removal of all the accumulated ash from the altar. Unlike the terumas hadeshen, which only involved the removal of a small amount of ash, this was a rather messy job. The verse (6:4) states:
He (the kohein) shall remove his garments, and he shall don other garments, and he shall remove the ashes to outside the camp, to a pure place.
Rashi (based on the Talmud) comments on the opening of this verse:
ופשט את בגדיו: אין זו חובה אלא דרך ארץ, שלא ילכלך בהוצאת הדשן בגדים שהוא משמש בהן תמיד, בגדים שבשל בהן קדרה לרבו אל ימזוג בהן כוס לרבו, לכך ולבש בגדים אחרים, פחותין מהן:
He shall remove his garments: This is not an obligation but derech eretz (literally "the way of the land", i.e. proper behavior), so that he should not make the garments that he regularly uses for the [Temple] service dirty during the removal of the ashes. The garments in which one cooks a pot for his master are not [proper] for serving him a cup [of wine]. Therefore, "he shall don other garments" inferior to [his regular priestly garments].
While there is a great deal of discussion as to exactly what Rashi means when he says that this is not an "obligation" (עיין ברמב"ן ובגור אריה), it is clear that Rashi is basically saying that even though, from the technical perspective of the laws of the Temple service, there is no need to change garments for this service, the Torah instructs us to do so anyways because of derech eretz.
Derech eretz, in its simplest sense, is simply civilized behavior – politeness, cleanliness, responsibility, trustworthiness, and all of the other essential modes of behavior that enable us to interact with our fellow human beings in an effective and pleasant manner. In a broader sense, derech eretz is a general term for all of the middos tovos – positive character traits – that are expected from a Jew. Middos such as humility and modesty, respect and gratitude, kindness and compassion, patience and tolerance, love for one’s fellow and love for God. The ספר מעלות המדות (Rabbeinu Yechiel, 13th century) summarizes this idea:
דרך ארץ הוא שיהא האדם מחשב בלבו הדרכים שיש לו לנהוג ולילך בהן כדי שיתרצה בהן בפני המקום ובפני הבריות.
Derech eretz consists of a person considering the ways he acts and behaves in order that he should find favor before Hashem and his fellow men.
|R' Moshe Feinstein|
The Talmudic tractate Avos, which deals with the principles of derech eretz, opens with the declaration, "Moses received the Torah at Sinai." The Bartenura commentary (R' Ovadia m'Bartenura, late 15th century) writes that this is done to tell us that the lessons of proper character and middos that are taught in Avos also originated with Moses at Sinai.
Indeed, one can argue that, at the most basic level, everything in the Torah is based upon the foundation of derech eretz. This is the underlying message in the famous story of Hillel who, when asked to provide an extremely short summation of the entire Torah, replied, "What is hateful to you, do not do to others. This is the entire Torah, everything else is commentary. Go and learn." (Talmud, Shabbos 31a) Properly understood, everything in the Torah, including the commandments between God and man, is based on derech eretz.
One of the most basic aspects of derech eretz is hakaras hatov (gratitude), i.e. the ability to acknowledge the good that another has done for you and the moral obligation that this creates. The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzva 33) writes that it is this concept that underlies the mitzva to honor and obey one's parents, and from this we learn how great is our obligation to honor and obey our Creator.
As we have written previously, gratitude is the most basic theme of the festival of Pesach. As we say at the conclusion of the Magid section of the haggada, "לפיכך אנחנו חיבים להודות וכו" - "Therefore, we are obligated to give thanks....” In the final analysis, the entire seder night is an exercise in hakaras hatov. Of the four sons of the hagada, the wicked son is the one who excludes himself from the community, as if the activities of the seder night have nothing to do with him. The hagada states that this attitude is kefira b'ikar - basic heresy - for he denies his moral obligation to his Benefactor. The evil of the wicked son is rooted in a failure in derech eretz.
This helps us understand the the famous saying of Chazal, דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה – “Derech Eretz must precede Torah.” Derech eretz is integral not only to our relationships with our fellow men, but also, and perhaps even more so, to our relationship with God.