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May 15, 2013
"Who's Derek Eretz?" my sister asked. "Wasn't he that famous Jewish slugger who played for the Detroit Tigers, the two-time American League MVP who belted over 300 home runs during his career, and was later inducted into the Hall of Fame?"
"No," I said, "I think you're thinking of Hank Greenberg. Derek Eretz is a what, not a who. No MVP, unless we're talking Most Valuable Practicum. It's a part of the Talmud devoted to Jewish ethics."
"Oh," she said. Her eyes glazed over, and she excused herself to finish the laundry.
I understood. How many of us are willing to allow our quest for a more spiritual life to interfere with a mound of dirty laundry?
Derek Eretz (also transliterated as Derech Eretz) was written 1500 - 2000 years ago. It appears in the Babylonian Talmud in Seder Nezikin (Damages) after Tractate Avodah Zarah (Strange Worship) and Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). Derek Eretz means 'the way of the land,' or what today we might term 'civility.'
The Tree of Life is one of two special trees in the Garden of Eden. The other is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The fruit of the second tree is forbidden to Adam. Eve eats from the Tree of Good and Evil, and Adam soon follows her example. As a result, they lose their angelic purity and become human. They acquire a yetzer tov, a good inclination, and a yetzer ha?ra, an evil inclination.
According to the Midrash, God intends for Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but not until after they eat from the Tree of Life. In other words, God wants them to first learn the ethical and spiritual message of the Torah, so that they will be able to listen to their altruistic impulses and ignore the self-serving ones.
Derek Eretz focuses on this dynamic. It explores proper interpersonal conduct and the development of good character traits. The rabbis teach that experience with the Divine is the outcome of acting with loving kindness, civility, and honesty in our emotional lives and financial dealings. They checked their attitudes and practiced vigilance with even the most mundane decisions. They recognized how easily the human heart succumbs to fear and rationalization. If the Talmudic rabbis were alive today, I don't think they would spit chewing tobacco at the umpires after a bad call, throw batteries at opposing outfielders, or flip people off in traffic. They wouldn't make a public display of their spirituality, hold grudges, gossip, or judge others without knowing their circumstances. They would not compete with or critique other denominations. "Do not use the Torah as a hatchet to cleave with, nor as a spade to dig with" (Derek Eretz Zuta, Chapter 2). They understood that such behavior alienates us from others, the Divine, and the Holy Spark within.
Hillel said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole of Torah, the rest is commentary." In the Jewish conceptual framework, a Holy Spark of the Divine resides in every person, given by God as a doorway to God. Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said, "the Kingdom of Heaven is within you." Whether one calls this awareness "God" or something else, inner peace and spiritual growth are available to everyone as a direct result of doing the right thing.
Derek Eretz offers the following guidance: "Be a good merchant, pay well, and strive always to do good" (Ch. 2). Our business ethics should embody the admonition don?t put a stumbling block before the blind, and not be reduced to the self-serving let the buyer beware. "Love all creatures, and respect them" (Ch. 1). Jewish law requires us to prevent the suffering of living creatures. "Love doubtfulness (i.e. everything shall be doubtful to you until you convince yourself of it)" (Ch. 1). The love of doubtfulness ? the love of critical thinking ? leads us to the love of study. "Nine entered the Garden of Eden while they were still alive" (Ch. 1). Six of those allowed to enter Paradise were neither Hebrew nor Jewish. Two were converts. Three were returning. Two were women. Some were rich and others were poor. "The righteous of all nations [religions] have a share in the World to Come" (Sanhedrin 105a). "Seek peace, and pursue it" (Ch. 10). The pursuit of peace and justice are not time-bound, as are other commandments. Hence, in places without them, we work to establish a peaceful and just environment. "Do not run after honor" (Ch. 2). Glory is fleeting; we can't rely on kudos to maintain our self-esteem. "Respect all kinds of men" (Ch. 2), and by extension, everyone else. "Love the poor, in order that your children shall not come to poverty" (Ch. 9). In essence, the rabbis are saying that what goes around comes around. We are interconnected and responsible for the well-being of others.
Social divisions based on religion, identity, ancestry, gender, class, culture, sexual orientation, or national origin are irrelevant to the spiritual mindset. Derek Eretz teaches us how to live in peace with others and ourselves. Anyone can seek to embody these values and build a relationship with the Divine. "He has told you, O man, what is good, and what Ha Shem seeks of you - only to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Ha Shem, your God" (Micah 6:8). Derek Eretz is like a good hitting coach, teaching us which pitches to go after, and which ones to leave alone.