I think about Derech Eretz a lot during the week. As host of the Derech Eretz Hour, I find myself looking at the news or taking in what happens around me through the prism of this vital Jewish concept. I can’t say I’m always the paragon of my weekly introduction to the show, “this is your weekly reminder of the importance of being kind, considerate, ethical, civil and courteous in all of our actions and words,” but I can say, without a doubt, that the one who has benefited most from this weekly venture into decency and politeness is…..me. While I’m delighted to get appreciative emails from all over, I, as the steadiest listener, am the greatest beneficiary of the show. I can’t begin to tell you how it’s changed my already decent behavior.
I try to look at events through the Derech Eretz lens, and as we recently marked Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, I would like to suggest that we owe unmitigated and unreserved Derech Eretz to three groups of people. I think the last one I mention way not be cheered by everyone.
The first group is Holocaust survivors. While it’s true that not every one of them experienced the same kind of trauma – some survived a local ghetto while others lost multiple family members – each of them was a victim, on one level or another, of a barbarism and depraved indifference to human life that obliterated a third of our people at the time. I think it’s safe to say that none of us would have traded places with any survivor. Their horror and agony is likely relived every day, not as though it were yesterday, but this morning, with memories and stark images that have gone beyond viral in their minds. Holocaust survivors, as long as they are alive, deserve all the respect and Derech Eretz we can accord them, for their existence and witness, their resolve and tenacity, their embracing life. Our government should do the most possible to make sure our survivors have what they need- food, finances, a place to live, security, hope. So many hundreds of thousands came here to build up the land – my parents, they should live and be well, among them in 1948- and now, in their waning years, we have to help them live in the kind of dignity their experience and witness deserves.
The second group that deserves our unqualified Derech Eretz is the precious men and women of Tzahal, our Israel Armed Forces. In Israel, it’s not unusual to hear parents share their pride in their child getting into an “elite” unit, and kol hakavod to them. At the same time, I like to think of all our fighting men and women in Tzahal as elite. As we know, not everyone eligible for the army enlists, and the government excludes several categories from the obligation to be in the army. Given how many ways there are to remain a civilian, each one of our soldiers is a gem and worthy of our utmost honor and respect. No matter where they are stationed or what they are doing, they put their lives on the line for our security and safety, and proudly wear the uniforms that let everyone know of their love for Eretz Yisrael. Of course, we see them all the time and we tend to become inured and perhaps desensitized to the risks and uncertainties they live with every day. Sometimes Tzahal is criticized and insulted at their human imperfection, vilified for their assumed embarrassing blunders. They are imperfect, but they are perfectly OUR sons and daughters who love this imperfect country perfectly enough to put everything on the line, and for that, they deserve our Derech Eretz, compliments, support and deepest appreciation, without exception.
The third and last group that deserves our unfiltered Derech Eretz is the President, Prime Minister and elected officials of Israel. This doesn’t mean we agree with them, or have nothing critical to say of them. What it does mean is to be reminded of two teachings from our classic texts. One, in Pirkei Avot 3:2, informs us “Pray for the effectiveness of the government, for without the awe of it, one would swallow his friend alive.” Another, in Shemot 22;27, warns us “A Nasi of your people should not be cursed.” For me, this means that even though we may have reason to disagree or even despise our elected officials, they are still due a modicum of Derech Eretz, especially in the way we speak of them. I was on a tour bus recently when a religious man took the microphone and spoke with great precision and eloquence about the area we were in. During his remarks he veered into political commentary, and mentioned Shimon Peres, followed by the words “Yemach shemo.” These words used to be reserved for the most diabolical anti-Semites, and to hear such a phrase used for a Jew, who is the President of Israel, is stepping into radically dangerous territory. I have to admit that even though I don’t think our President is sensitive to my religious Zionist concerns and aspirations, I was appalled. Whether it’s the President or Prime Minister of Israel, even while disagreeing with their policies and decisions, I at least acknowledge their duly elected position, their having to juggle many concerns and constituencies, their thankless job, and concede I don’t have all the information. It is with this in mind that we pray from the welfare of our government every Shabbat morning, even a government that may fall short of our collective expectations. All of our elected officials deserve a baseline of Derech Eretz, even while we pray that Hashem grant them wisdom to do what is right and good for Eretz Yisrael.