Derach eretz, literally translated, means the way of the land. Its connotation is going the way of the land and the caring and attentive way toward the people we respect. It further means to be righteous and decent, to respect those around us, including our loved ones, and to behave in a way that is acceptable and loving. There is much more that cannot be literally translated. The opposite is to be disrespectful, ignore and shame those we should care about and behave in a rude and uncaring fashion. There are many examples of the last. A grandson who excludes himself from his grandfather's birthday, stating that he must visit a friend to celebrate “shiva broches” with him on Friday eve (Shabbat) on which the few remaining family members celebrate the octogenarian's birthday.
Another example is dishonoring or ignoring parents who need assistance on rare occasions. Forgotten are the multitude times that loving help was extended and received by the child while growing up to be a man. Another lack of Derach Eretz is when a niece ignores a childless aunt who has given unreservedly to this niece into the middle age of this erstwhile child. The recipient of the generosity extended only to telephone calling this very kindly woman when she needed financial assistance. She does not recognize the word reciprocity and becomes belligerent when she is not given all that she feels is her entitlement. Such folk as described are very narcissistic individuals who disregard peoples needs, emotionally, physically, spiritually and otherwise.
The true zadik gives of himself “bechol levovcho, bechol nafschecho ufcol meodecho”!
The humane person who wants to be cared about and who deserves respect and caring refrains from embarrassing another person regardless if the individual is right or wrong. “Einen Menschen Mewaisch zu sein” is a “Nevere”: To embarrass a person is a sin or an evil deed. It is the same as ridiculing others for the sake of exhibiting one's superiority. Again, it is a sign of narcissism. This does not fit into the concept of Derach Eretz. It is sadistically enjoying the pain of the victim for aggrandizement of the dispenser of such deeds. Good teachers will protect a student who gives a wrong answer orally. He or she will gently divert a harsh correction with a redirection by saying such things as, “let’s think about that, or ask others who have raised their hands to give their responses,” until the correct reply is verbalized. There are innumerable techniques which can be utilized to avoid embarrassment.
To follow the dictates of derach eretz we must teach and include our young children from a very early age. We as parents and/or teachers must be the examples, the role models, of those who come in contact with us, be they young or old and all of those in between.
Following the law is essential if we are to live in our society. A good example is if you do not heed the traffic signs and regulations, unacceptable consequences will follow. The same will happen if we do not follow the acceptable path of our society. When we want to ignore the righteous derach we will have to expect difficulties. Let us follow in the footsteps of our sages, our zadikim, keep as nonjudgmental an attitude as possible, overlooking the flaws of our compatriots, and control the expression of our own negative impulses!
Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of Deviant Nurses & Improper Patient Care (2006).