Tuesday, October 27th 2020   |

Say Little, Do Much: Priorities


In my youth, I was privileged to attend a truly outstanding congregational Hebrew School, under the leadership of Rabbi Asher Bar-Zev. I remember vividly sitting among particularly unruly and inattentive Hebrew high school students, when the Rabbi abruptly called our lesson to an early termination, citing the principle “Derech Eretz Kadmah l’Torah” – “Courtesy, civility, and proper comportment must precede Torah study.”

Our ill-mannered behavior, he explained, made continued engagement with the sacred text before us improper and untenable. Get your priorities straight. Class dismissed.

The rabbi’s stern admonition made a lasting impression on me. I have recalled his upbraiding many times over the years: as a classroom teacher, in meetings of Jewish organizational boards, committees, communities, and rabbinic deliberative bodies…when, ostensibly in the service of Torah, “Derech Eretz” was in short supply indeed. Alas, the dynamic is all too familiar.

Derech Eretz Kadmah l’Torah.” The counting of the Omer, linking the days between Passover and Shavuot, represents a seven-week-long immersion in this principle. Traditionally, each day and each week is associated with specific aspects of moral refinement: kindness, humility, justice, etc. All in preparation for the Festival celebrating God’s gift of the Torah. Quite literally, “Derech Eretz” precedes Torah.

The message of the season is timeless: Get your priorities straight. Class dismissed.

(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)

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