I write this Shabbat message to you from a place that I, and so many of our young congregants, have been waiting two years to visit – URJ camp OSRUI in Oconomowoc, WI. Many of you know that I am a lifelong camper, having grown up, been on staff, and now on faculty at URJ camps since I was 8 years old. I learned how to play guitar at camp. I learned how to make my bed at camp. I even learned how to appreciate hiking at camp. But most importantly, I learned how to live a life imbued with Jewish values, middot – to be actively Jewish all the time, not just some of the time, and to use my Judaism to help guide even seemingly secular decisions.
This afternoon, as chanichim (campers) arrived, unpacked, and began re-forming the kehillah kedosha (sacred community) known as OSRUI, I and my fellow segel (faculty/Jewish professionals) spoke about the middah (value) of derech eretz. Here at camp, we translate derech eretz as “community mindedness”, considering how we behave that benefits the community as a whole. Actions like cleaning up after oneself, saying kind words to each other, and discovering camp traditions all are part of acting with derech eretz at the forefront of our minds. They are also behaviors that are difficult to maintain, day in and day out.
In this week’s parasha (Torah portion), Vaetchanan, focuses on derech eretz as well. Moses is on part 2 of his summarizing and reminding the Israelites of their journey to the Promised Land and the rules with which to enter. He reminds them of the moment of brit (covenant) at Sinai, and the obligations of the Israelites and God to one another. He also speaks the words familiar to us of the Shema and Vahavtah prayers: Observe God’s teachings in every part of your life, awake and asleep, at home and away, dedicate yourself and teach your children. Follow God’s guidance. Moses tells the Israelites, if you follow the path in the land the God has set forth for you, you will thrive. “Path” in Hebrew, derech. “Land” in Hebrew, eretz. Putting it together, derech eretz goes beyond simple community mindedness and takes on a level intentionally sacred community building.
Creating community imbued with God, purpose, and sacred intention is indeed hard, in a good way. Working towards, for, and with community that puts derech eretz at its center is as rewarding as it is challenging. Being present in that community, day in and day out, can be exhausting, and most likely there will be days when we falter, when we don’t live up to our own best selves or don’t inspire the same in others. Even Moses, the prophet of prophets, wasn’t able to live his best self every day. He was flawed, just as we are. Asking him, or any other role model to be perfect community builders every day is asking the impossible.
Vaetchanan reminds us that even on our “off days” we have our minhag (community standards) of derech eretz to fall back on. When we err, the community steps in to support us. When we see someone falter, we are ready to reestablish balance. Being a part of a community focused on derech eretz looks like a lot of different things. It looks like kindness, compassion and mutual caring. It also looks like forgiveness, understanding, and goodwill. It looks like having a set of community guidelines (this week we also read the second iteration of the 10 commandments), and also knowing when to be flexible in their application. It looks like creating the habit of continually reinforcing derech eretz, so the even on the off days, we are inclined towards positive actions. It looks like waiting [mostly] patiently for two years, so that when it is safe and healthy to reenter the sacred spaces of community it is worth it. It looks like even when the physical community is spread out, spiritual presence remains strong.
This week, the Torah guides us to recommit ourselves to living a life of derech eretz – whether at home, at camp, or on the continual journey towards a land and a life filled with promise, derech eretz remains close to our hearts and at the center of who we are.