The creation of our world is described in the Torah as a flurry of activity. Rapidly, across a short span of six days, the universe as we know it is called into being. In effortless fashion, a Divine declaration or announcement draws each aspect of our world into being. By contrast, the creation of man is far more deliberate and even methodical. Man is the centerpiece of God’s creation and his crafting is described as a physical action, taken carefully and with great design. Before actually crafting man, God announces his intention to “jointly create a human being.” The phrase “na’aseh” implies that multiple partners are partnering in man’s creation or, at the very least, that multiple beings are being consulted with. Obviously, God alone created man, yet the Torah presents it as a shared project between God and heavenly angels.
By portraying this collaborative creation of man—even though God is the sole architect—the Torah showcases the critical trait of humility. God doesn’t take full credit for the most magnificent part of His Universe; similarly, we shouldn’t aggrandize our own lesser accomplishments. Humility lies at the heart of moral behavior and, also, serves as a gateway to many other ethical traits. By modeling humility during His greatest display of creativity, God juxtaposes His majesty with humility; this juxtaposition of God’s grandeur and humility will recur throughout the Torah.
However, in describing the creation of man as a joint project, God demonstrates more than just the trait of humility. Man—the only creature with consciousness—is a natural rival to angels, and these angels should be informed of man’s creation and be given a “heads up.” Rashi comments that God teaches us “derech eretz”—behaving with courtesy and civility—in this case informing the angels of a decision that will impact them. Ironically, by considering the sensitivity of the angels and appearing to consult with them, God invites theological questioning; the verse can be interpreted as if God were actually aided by angels in the creation of man. Though this heretical notion is quickly repudiated by the next verse, this phrase of “na’aseh” can potentially arouse religious questioning. Evidently, adherence to “derech eretz” is an important-enough value to justify a verse that may invite theological heresy.
The term “derech eretz” refers to many different values. The phrase “derech eretz kadma l’Torah” (derech eretz precedes Torah study) doesn’t actually appear in the writings of Chazal but is based upon several similar statements, and endorses moral behavior as the foundation for religious growth. Without ethical conduct, Torah study becomes hollow and even noxious. Additionally, the well-known Mishnah in Avot (2:2) extols the virtue of Torah accompanied by derech eretz (Torah im derech eretz), advising gainful employment and professional occupation alongside Torah study. Generally, then, derech eretz refers either to moral behavior or to the importance of earning a living.
In our context, though, the phrase of “derech eretz” cited by Rashi refers to an entirely different value. It refers to the value of conforming to popular convention and politeness: It is only “mannerly” to inform the angels of the creation of human beings. This value shouldn’t be confused with the trait of humility—which is an “absolute” moral value and is displayed by God when He presented the creation of man as a joint project. Derech eretz isn’t a moral trait but the value of conforming to basic norms of human behavior. Polite and sensitive humans would inform people impacted by their decisions and, likewise, showcasing derech eretz, God informed the angels of His decision.
This connotation of derech eretz was advocated by Rav Hirsch who, in 1851, defined his approach as “Torah Im Derech Eretz” writing: “Derech Eretz includes everything that results from the fact that man’s existence, mission and social life are conducted on Earth… It also includes the customs and considerations of etiquette that the social order generates.” Evidently, part of religious life demands compliance with the codes of conduct that humans cultivate and expect from one another.
The religious value of derech eretz and conformity to human courtesies is far from obvious. After all, religion is transcendent and eternal and shouldn’t be grounded in human cultural norms. Man is flawed and often vain and what value can be assigned to the codes of conduct that human culture generates? Obviously, a religious person has to be moral and honest as these are absolute moral traits, but why should human politeness and convention guide religious behavior? Not only does derech eretz seem irrelevant, but attention to manners and civility can distract us from our more important duties to God. Too much attention to the expectations of men can sway a person from the expectations of God and the eternal duties of religion.
God’s attention to derech eretz instructs us otherwise: Although religion demands that we soar to Heaven, Torah was delivered to men who live in human communities on Earth. Living together, humans develop a culture of human interaction—in particular, human interaction in public situations. God expects us to confirm to three different systems—in descending order: First and foremost, we conform to His Divinely stipulated Torah and system of halacha. Secondly, we conform to absolute moral values that God himself models for us, and which God endowed the human heart with. Finally, we are meant to conform to human codes of conduct and politeness—derech eretz—the way of the land. On the roadways, in our work environments, in shopping centers, and in the general “spaces” with other humans, we aren’t just expected to act morally but also in accordance with polite and respectful human behavior. Failure to adhere to those values and to act politely veers from the lesson that God Himself provided when He created us. At the origin of human life, God displayed the importance of human conventions and codes of conduct to stress how vital these values are to human experience.
Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion, located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.