And Yaakov loved Rachel, and he said: I will work for you seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter. (Sefer Beresheit 29:18)
The Torah’s treatment of Yaakov is unique
We envision our Patriarchs as spiritual giants. The Torah’s description of Avraham provides a firm foundation for this conclusion. His spiritual trials and the development of his relationship with Hashem are presented in detail. The Torah reveals little about the life of Yitzchak. However, from the material provided, his spiritual distinction is evident. He allows his father to bind him and place him on an altar as a sacrifice to Hashem. The overall impression communicated by the Torah is that he was deeply involved in the spiritual world and correspondingly detached from material affairs. Parshat VaYetze is devoted to describing the life of Yaakov. How does the parasha’s description of Yaakov compare with the picture we have of Avraham and Yitzchak?
The parasha begins by relating a prophecy received by Yaakov. Hashem assures him that He will be with him and protect him. However, from that point forward, the parasha deals primarily with the mundane, practical challenges that Yaakov encountered and overcame. Almost immediately, the Torah reintroduces the devious Lavan. Yaakov wishes to marry Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel. Lavan substitutes Leyah. Lavan agrees to the marriage of Yaakov and Rachel in exchange for Yaakov’s continued service as a shepherd. Eventually, Yaakov and Lavan enter into a business arrangement. Lavan repeatedly alters the parameters of the agreement in his own favor. Only through Hashem’s providence does Yaakov succeed in overcoming Lavan’s unscrupulous machinations. In short, the parasha deals more with the material and practical challenges encountered by Yaakov than with his spiritual journey. What is the Torah’s message in placing its focus upon this aspect of Yaakov’s life?
There are a number of reasons that the Torah deals extensively with these issues. We will focus on a single message communicated by this material. But first let us consider another issue.
Any person who is not well-versed in the Written Law, the Mishne, and derech eretz is not a member of the community. Regarding one who does cleave to these three the Scripture states, “The three-strand thread does not quickly break.” [Sefer Kohelet 4:12] (Mishe, Mesechet Kidushin 1:10)
Raban Gamliel the son of Rebbi Yehudah, the Prince, said: The study of Torah combined with derech eretz is beautiful – for toil in both of them causes sin to be forgotten. (Mesechet Avot 2:2)
Two forms of derech eretz
The term derech eretz – the way of the land – is used extensively by our Sages. In numerous places they admonish us to act with derech eretz. However, the meaning of the term and the behaviors that it includes is not apparent. The term appears a number of times in the Mishne. Let us consider two of these instances.
In the first of the sources above the Sages comment that in order for a person to contribute to the welfare of his community, one must have knowledge of the Written and Oral Law and practice derech eretz. What does derech eretz mean in this context? Commenting on this mishne, Maimonides explains that the term means the capacity to function well within a community. In includes conducting oneself in a pleasant manner and according to the conventions of behavior that are accepted by the community –acting in a polite and civil manner. In this context, derech eretz refers to the behaviors necessary to interact well with the other members of one’s community.
In his comments on the second mishne, Maimonides explains that it is admonishing us to combine study with earning a livelihood. He explains that in order to avoid sin a livelihood is essential. One who does not have an adequate source of income will resort to dishonest or less than exemplary means in order to provide for himself and his family. In this instance, acting with derech eretz means to engage in an activity through which one financially supports oneself and one’s family.
These examples demonstrate the two most common meanings of derech eretz. In general, the term refers either to behaving politely and with civility or it means to earn a livelihood. It is odd that this single term – derech eretz – is used to express two very different ideas. Is there some unifying meaning to the term that accommodates both usages?
The definition of derech eretz
In fact, the two usages do have a common foundation. A single concept expressed by the term derech eretz encompasses both acting politely and with civility as well as earning a livelihood. Derech eretz – traveling the way of the land – means to act in a way that is harmonious with one’s environment. One who behaves politely and with civility seeks and maintains harmony with the members of the community. One who earns a living is acting in a way that is harmonious with the material realities of the world. In other words, this person understands the demands of living in our material world and takes them seriously. He is not expecting mun – manna – to suddenly fall from the heavens and provide sustenance for him and his family.
Parshat VaYetze not only describes how Yaakov overcame the adversarial behaviors of his father-in-law Lavan. It describes how he accomplished this while acting within the boundaries of derech eretz. Let us consider an obvious and a not-so-obvious example of Yaakov’s commitment to derech eretz.
And it was in the morning and behold, she was Leyah! And he said to Lavan: What is this you have done to me. Did I not work for you for the sake of Rachel? Why have you acted deceptively toward me? And Lavan said: We do not act thus in our place – to give (for a bride) the younger one before the older one. (Sefer Beresheit 29:25-26)
Yaakov accepts Lavan’s instruction in derech eretz
Lavan substitutes Leyah for Rachel. The morning following their wedding Yaakov realizes that Lavan has deceived him. He reproaches Lavan for his deception. Lavan responds that he acted properly. It would not have been proper for him to give his younger daughter in marriage before his older daughter. He tells Yaakov that it is not his intent to withhold Rachel from him. He will give Rachel to him as a wife in exchange for Yaakov’s continued service as a shepherd. Yaakov accepts the arrangement.
Yaakov reproached Lavan. One senses that he was quite angry with his father-in-law. He had labored for seven years to earn the right to marry Rachel, and Lavan had replaced her with Leyah. Yet, when Lavan responds, Yaakov seems to be pacified. He accepts the explanation and a new bargain is struck. How did Lavan succeed in subduing Yaakov’s anger? Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno suggests that Lavan was not merely claiming that he was adhering to convention. He was explaining that the members of the community were committed to this convention. They would not have allowed Rachel to be married before Leyah. According to this perspective, Yaakov’s acceptance of Lavan’s explanation was an expression of resignation. Yaakov understood that the convention would be enforced by the community and he had to accept it.
Gershonides suggests a more obvious explanation for Yaakov’s behavior. Lavan was correct. Derech eretz did dictate that Leyah should be married before Rachel. Yes, Lavan had acted deceptively. He should not have stealthily substituted one daughter for the other. But Yaakov accepted the assertion that the local practice was for the older daughter to be married before her younger sister. He understood that in order to marry Rachel, he must first marry Leyah. In other words, Yaakov recognized that derech eretz required that he first marry Leyah and only then marry Rachel.
This incident is an example of the expression of derech eretz described in the first mishne. Living in harmony with one’s environment requires that one appreciate society’s standards of polite behavior and civility. One must seek to function within the community and contribute to its welfare. This requires that one adopt civil and polite behavior.
And Yaakov took himself moist rod[s] of trembling poplar and hazelnut, and chestnut, and he peeled white streaks upon them, baring the white that was on the rods. (Sefer Beresheit 30:37)
And an angel of the L-rd said to me in a dream, “Yaakov!” And I said, “Here I am.” And he said: Now lift your eyes and see [that] all the he goats mounting the animals are ringed, speckled, and striped, for I have seen all that Lavan is doing to you. (Sefer Beresheit 31:11-12)
Applying science as derech eretz
Let us consider an example of the expression of derech eretz described in the second mishne. This example is less obvious than the one above. This mishne tells us that we should combine the study of Torah with securing a livelihood. This combination will help assure that a person not sin. Maimonides explains that by having a livelihood a person will not be tempted to secure sustenance for himself and his family through means that are dishonest or less than exemplary.
Yaakov and Lavan make a bargain. Yaakov will continue to act as Lavan’s shepherd. His compensation is that the offspring of the flock that are spotted will belong to him. Yaakov prepares rods of wood to place in the troughs from which the flock water. He peels the bark from portions of the rods revealing the white wood beneath. When the flock waters, its members gaze upon these spotted rods. Yaakov believes that this repeated exposure to visual imagery will influence the characteristics of the offspring producing a disproportionate number of spotted goats and sheep.,
It is interesting that Yaakov devised and implemented this elaborate plan for influencing the frequency of spotted offspring. He subsequently reveals to Rachel and Leyah that this scheme was not necessary. He tells them of a dream in which an angel of Hashem speaks to him. The angel explains that Hashem knows that Lavan has not acted in good faith and that he has repeatedly altered the terms of their agreement. Hashem has intervened to prevent Lavan from taking advantage of him. The agreement stipulates that offspring of the flock with specific markings will belong to Yaakov. Lavan has repeatedly altered the markings stipulated by their agreement. But with each alteration Hashem has caused the flock to produce the offspring with the markings stipulated by Lavan.
Yaakov knew from this prophecy that Hashem was intervening on his behalf and assuring that Lavan would not deprive him of his fair compensation. Then, why did he feel it necessary to employ his plan to produce spotted offspring through natural means? If Hashem was intervening on his behalf, manipulations using natural means were unnecessary!
Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra remarks that Yaakov knew that Hashem would provide for him. He understood that he did not need the rods he had designed in order to influence the markings on the flock’s offspring. Ibn Ezra does not elaborate on these comments. However, his point seems to be that even though Yaakov concluded that it was not necessary to take these measures, he regarded them as appropriate. Why did he regard this as appropriate?
It seems that Ibn Ezra is applying the principle of living according to derech eretz. This means to conduct oneself in a manner that is harmonious with one’s surroundings and environment. According to Ibn Ezra, this includes living in a manner that is consistent with the operations of the material world and not relying upon miracles. Yaakov understood that Hashem was prepared to perform a miracle on his behalf. Nonetheless, he preferred confronting Lavan’s duplicity through natural means or minimizing the role of any miracle that Hashem would perform. When one relies upon a miracle, one is asking for an event or outcome that is not harmonious with the material world created by Hashem. This is a failure in one’s commitment to derech eretz.
This provides another explanation for the importance of combining Torah study with pursuit of a livelihood. Through adopting this lifestyle one lives in harmony with the natural world. One is emulating the behavior of Yaakov.
I have not brought home to you anything torn [by other animals]; I would suffer its loss; from my hand you would demand it, what was stolen by day and what was stolen at night. I was [in the field] by day when the heat consumed me, and the frost at night, and my sleep wandered from my eyes. (Sefer Beresheit 31:39-40)
Yaakov exemplifies derech eretz
In the above passages, Yaakov confronts Lavan. He describes his diligence as a shepherd. He accepted absolute responsibility for Lavan’s flocks and he endured enormous hardship in executing his duties. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that Yaakov accepted upon himself greater responsibility than demanded by the customs of the community or by any legal standard. Why did Yaakov serve Lavan more diligently than required by custom or law?
The following comments from Maimondes provide insight into Yaakov’s behavior:
A Torah Sage [should conduct] his business dealings with honesty and good faith… He is stringent with himself in his accounting, gives and yields to others when he buys from them, but is not demanding [about what they owe him]. He pays for his purchases immediately… He accepts obligations in matters of buying and selling for which the Torah does not hold him liable, in order to uphold and not go back on his verbal commitments. If others have obligations to him by law, he grants them an extension and pardons them… (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deyot 5:13)
Yaakov exemplifies the behavior described by Maimonides. He is scrupulous in his business dealings. He holds himself to the highest standards. He also seeks peace and harmony – even at his own expense.
Derech eretz – a practical and spiritual imperative
In summary, derech eretz means to live in harmony with one’s surroundings. It encompasses our behavior toward the members of our community and our interaction with the material environment. Derech eretz is a practical imperative. Harmony among the members of a community contributes to their quality of life and the overall effectiveness of the community. Earning a livelihood – living in harmony with the material world – protects one from sin. Providing for oneself and one’s family through participating in the economy helps assure that one will not resort to unscrupulous measures. According to Ibn Ezra, there is also a spiritual element to derech eretz. From his perspective, it is not merely these practical considerations that demand we behave with derech eretz. Living in harmony with one’s environment is inherently a spiritual value we must strive to embody.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 29:26.
 Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on the Sefer Beresheit, 29:26, Toelet 15.
 This is an elaboration on Gershonides’ comments. He limits himself to acknowledging that Lavan was correct in asserting that Leyah should marry before Rachel. Also, he suggests that this is the proper practice regardless of whether it is the convention of the community. Based on these comments, it follows that Yaakov could not protest his marriage to Leyah. She must marry before Rachel, and Yaakov, no doubt, recognized that he was the only suitable husband for Leyah.
 See comments of Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra on 31:8. The initial agreement was that offspring with any of a variety of markings will belong to Yaakov. Subsequently, Lavan altered the agreement. Only offspring with a specific type of markings will belong to Yaakov. Then, he repeatedly changed the specific type of markings stipulated by the agreement.
 Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 30:39.
 The Torah is not suggesting that Yaakov’s “science” was correct. He devised a plan that corresponded with his understanding of the natural phenomenon. That his understanding was flawed is not relevant. The point made is that he endeavored to influence the number of spotted offspring through using natural means.
 Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 31:9.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 31:38-39.
 Is practicing derech eretz an ethical imperative that is an expression of the Torah’s overall outlook or is it required by a specific commandment? The answer is suggested by an analysis of the material in Maimonides’ Hilchot Deyot. This section of his code opens with his treatment of the commandment of ve’halachta be’drachav – to walk in the path of Hashem. He explains that this commandment requires that we endeavor to imitate Hashem (Hilchot Deyot 1:6). Maimonides includes within this commandment the requirement to conduct oneself with moderation; one should not overindulge appetites or adopt asceticism. Then, Maimonides outlines his views on healthy living. He discusses diet, the importance of eight hours of sleep per night, and various other health-related issues. This is followed by his discussion of the proper behaviors for a Torah scholar – a portion of which is cited above. What unifies these various topics and how are they related to the commandment to walk in the path of Hashem?
It seems that all of these areas are elements of a harmonious existence. Moderation fosters harmony within the personality as well as harmony between the instinctual and spiritual elements of the human being. Health is the body’s expression of harmony and it also nurtures harmony between the mind and body. As is explained above, the behavior of the Torah scholar must place him in harmony with his community.
It follows that the commandment of ve’halachta be’drachav is focused upon the achievement of harmony. Striving for this harmony is a form of imitating Hashem. He is the paradigm of harmony (Rav Yisrael Chait, Parshat Chayai Sarah). Through seeking harmony in our own lives and in our behaviors we imitate Him.
Based on this analysis, we suggest that derech eretz is more than a general ethical imperative. It is included in the commandment of ve’halachta be’drachav. It is one of the specific elements of this commandment which directs us to imitate our Creator by seeking harmony in our lives and behaviors.