This Tuesday night the Jewish people will begin to celebrate the one-day-long biblical festival of Shavuot ( Weeks), which is focused on the Sinai Revelation – the giving of the Torah seven weeks after the Exodus.
Yet Jewish tradition teaches that for the 26 generations that preceded that Revelation, humanity was given another part of God’s Way known as Derech Eretz (literally, the way of the earth), or personal etiquette – the way to behave with one another.
It is deduced from Genesis 3:24 where we read ”to guard the way of the Tree of Life.” Since the “Tree of Life” is a Rabbinic synonym to the Torah itself, the way leading to it is person-to-person way of proper behavior, a pre-condition for life under God’s Law. Those keeping the law (e.g., resting from work on the Sabbath, fasting on the Day of Atonement, avoiding non-kosher food such as pork) would still be living the life of scoundrels if they were negligent or cavalier with essential person-to-person proper conduct, such as being the first to greet another fellow even with a smile.
God demonstrates “Himself” such conduct when calling upon the hiding Adam (following his debacle with the forbidden fruit), “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). It is not that God did not know Adam’s whereabouts; rather, God wanted Adam to know that He was coming to talk with him, thus first teaching us not to surprise another person (not even one’s wife at home) without letting them know of your immediate arrival at their home, and how much more so if unexpectedly.
Secondly, before God would rebuke Adam he was given an opportunity to explain himself. Similarly, when God needed to rebuke Moses’ siblings Miriam and Aaron for their gossip and slander directed at Moses, God called them out for a personal rebuke with no extra audience – not even Moses was allowed to be present – limiting His words to specific charges (Numbers 12: 4-8).
To Abraham God demonstrates the value of visiting the sick, for we read that God came to “visit” him following his circumcision when he was hurting the most (Gen. 18:1). And upon Abraham’s passing God appears to his son Isaac to teach us the import of comforting the bereaved (Gen. 25:11). And similarly God also buries Moses – the ultimate kindness one could give another – as we see in Deuteronomy 34:6.
Now, all these actions are not required by the Torah, but they constitute essential ethics of Derech Eretz, without which one should not even attempt to live by God’s law; they were given to the human race from the very beginning as a prelude for Revelation (Torah).