Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi said, “Torah study with derech eretz (the way of the land) is becoming, for toiling over them both makes one forget sin. And Torah study that does not have melachah (labor) with it, will ultimately cease and bring sin in its wake…
Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura explained that derech eretz means work or business. Toiling over both Torah and derech eretz makes one forget sin, for the Torah saps one’s strength and toil breaks the body. As a result, the person’s evil inclination is nullified.
If a person toils in Torah study and by doing so, forgets sin, why does he also need melachah, or labor? This question beckons the mishnah to add that any Torah study that does not include melachah too, will ultimately cease. For if a person does not work, he will go hungry and will ultimately become a robber and forget his Torah knowledge. Most of the commentaries understood that the terms derech eretz and melachah refer to the same thing. This approach, however, makes it difficult to understand why two different terms were employed to describe the same action. More precisely, though the two terms are close in meaning, when applied to toil and labor, it is not entirely clear how they differ.
Derech Eretz and Melachah—Natural and Nurtured Love of Yisrael
The Ba’al Shem Tov provides us with a revolutionary explanation. Melachah refers to actions that increase one’s love for one’s fellow Jew—ahavat Yisrael. For Torah to be sustainable, one must pursue actions that increase one’s ahavat Yisrael. This novel interpretation by the Ba’al Shem Tov had a powerful effect on the holy Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who invested his entire life developing his love for his fellow Jews.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe emphasized that in order for the Torah to be sustained in reality—for it to continue to play a central role in all that we are as a people—it is not enough that we love others passively. We must toil and expend great effort in order to constantly engage in helping other both materially and spiritually.
Following this explanation, derech eretz (the first term appearing in the mishnah) refers to our naturally ingrained love for our fellow Jews. By nature, every Jew is compassionate, restrained, and inclined to act with loving-kindness. This is the state described as “derech eretz, which precedes the Torah.” Melachah then represents the development of these natural traits above and beyond their innate expression. This is achieved through both practical effort in applying them day by day and through contemplation on these traits that comes in the wake of Torah study. In this manner, derech eretz and melachah together complete the Torah. Amazingly, the sum of the numerical values of derech eretz (דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ) and melachah (מְלָאכָה) equals the numerical value of Torah (תּוֹרָה)! In addition, the initial letters of derech eretz and melachah spell the word “man” (אָדָם), as in the verse, “This the Torah, a man,” which is interpreted by the sages to mean that the goal of the Torah is to better the relationships between people and to make an individual into a “man,” in the sense of menschlichkeit.
Loving-kindness and Beauty Together
Ahavat Yisrael is an expression of the sefirah of loving-kindness, or chessed (love is the inner dimension of chessed). Actively expressing ahavat Yisrael through actions and campaigns to help others are the practical expression of this love, which corresponds to the sefirah of victory (netzach), which lies just under loving-kindness on the right axis of the sefirot. Victory is the sefirah that acts on our loving-kindness and brings expresses it actively in reality. As such it is considered the practical tool of loving-kindness. It is very important for us to refine our character traits. One of the central tenets of character development is refining our emotional faculties. Refining victory is achieved by truly being willing to go out on campaigns to help others, thereby developing a delicate taste for doing a favor for a fellow Jew.
Torah is associated with the sefirah of beauty (tiferet). Thus, the joining of “Torah with melachah represents the coupling of these two sefirot—tiferet and netzach. Tiferet is identified as the primary masculine persona (Zeir Anpin), the influencer. The Torah too descends from above to below to unite with reality and to influence its course. The Torah’s role is thus to impregnate reality, as it were. It is explained that when the male is in a state of influencing, he is associates with the sefirah of netzach, as in the Zohar, “He is in netzach.” In other words, melachah (netzach) serves as a garb that sustains and completes the pillar of Torah.
In a certain sense Torah and prayer are opposites. From the Torah’s perspective, everything appears to be good and perfected. Prayer on the other hand stresses the lack and the neediness of reality. This gap is bridged by means of melachah, by means of the campaigns that the Torah employs thereby injecting the Torah’s perfection into a deficient reality, but with confidence (provided by the sefirah of netzach, whose inner experience is one of confidence) that the world is ready for the Torah’s vision. The melachah of actualizing the Torah’s vision is in effect the innate derech eretz that has come to fit the needs of reality.
. See Merkevet Hamishnah and Pirkei Moshe who because of this difficulty pursued another vein of commentary. See other commentaries in Midrash Shmuel.
. Based on Likutei Sichot vol. 1 parashat Kedoshim (§14 and on). See also Keter Shem Tov (Kehot edition), addendum 110.
. Yalkut Shimoni Bereisheet 34.
. Numbers 19:14.
. Hayom Yom for the sixth day of First Adar.
. Tikkunei Zohar tikkun 13 (28b). See also Eitz Chaim 29:5.