What's in a Word?

For the week ending 25 August 2018 / 14 Elul 5778

Roads and Paths, Ways and Means

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

The month of Elul is traditionally set aside as a time for introspection and moral contemplation. This generally produces a major uptick in the study of Mussar (“moral instruction”). Some famous books of Mussar include such titles as Orchot Tzadikim (“Ways of the Righteous”), Mesillot Yesharim (“Paths of the Just”), Derech Hashem (“Way of G-d”), and Netivot Shalom (“The Lanes of Peace”). The common denominator between all these names is that they refer to different types of roads and paths. Over the next few weeks we will study these different words and more, in order to better our understanding of these synonyms for roads.

This week, we focus on the words derech and orach.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer (1720-1797), also known as the Vilna Gaon, explains the difference between a derech and an orach is that a derech is wide and open to the public, while an orach is short and narrow, and is not as commonly accessed. Similarly, Rabbi Meir Leibush Weiser (1809-1879), better known as Malbim, explains that while both a derech and an orach are open to the public, the derech is used to travel from major city to major city, or from province to province, while the orach reaches outlying towns and villages.

On his deathbed, Jacob blessed his son Dan with the following words: “Dan shall be a snake on the derech, a serpent on the orach” (Gen. 49:16-18). Why did Jacob first say that Dan should be a snake on the derech and then seemingly repeat himself by saying a serpent on the orach?

In line with the Vilna Gaon, the difference between derech and orach is that a derech is wider and more accessible, while an orach is narrower and less traversable. Based on this, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Shlez (1834-1914) explains that Jacob foresaw that two idols were destined to be set up at the City of Dan. The first was Micah’s idol, which served as a snake on the derech in discouraging people from performing the mandated pilgrimages to the Tabernacle at Shiloh, and subsequently to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The second idol at Dan was Jeroboam’s Golden Calf, which proved to be like a serpent on the orach. Though, in practice, Micah’s idol discouraged people from performing the required pilgrimages, Jeroboam actively engaged in thwarting people from doing so by royal fiat. As a result, the way to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in Jeroboam’s time is described as a narrow orach, and his Golden Calf is presented as a serpent sitting on that orach, furthering discouraging pedestrians from treading upon it. The way to the Tabernacle/Temple in Micah’s time was described as a derech because Micah’s idol did not actively bar people from performing the pilgrimages.

Taking a page from Malbim’s approach, Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) suggests that because an orach breaks away from a main road to lead more directly to less-travelled destinations, the righteous man is described as “safeguarding the orach” (Proverbs 2:20). That is, because the righteous man is also meticulous with the details, not just the general path, when he is described as a guardian of the proper path we use the word orach which is more specific than derech.

The Zohar (Vayakhel 215a and Kedoshim 88a) explains that a derech is a road which everybody has access to. On the other hand, the Zohar explains that an orach is a brand new road upon which nobody has previously trodden. For this reason, explains the Zohar, the righteous are associated with an orach; they bring to This World novel Torah ideas which had not yet previously existed, and they reveal the presence of G-d in places in the world in which it had not yet been revealed.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) disagrees with the Vilna Gaon and Malbim’s approach, instead arguing that a derech and orach can refer to the exact same road, but the two words focus on different aspects of such a road. In his estimation both words refer to a long and wide road, but derech focuses on the great length of the road, while orach focuses on the spacious width of the road. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the word orach is derived from the two-letter root REISH-CHET which refers to width, and from which such words as revach (space) and rachav (wide) are derived.

Radak explains that oraiach (“guest”) is related to orach because a guest arrives at his destination by taking the road he travelled. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim adds that a banquet held in honor of a specific guest is called an arucha (although, in Modern Hebrew, arucha is used to refer to any meal).

The root of the word derech is related to the verb dorech, which not only means "tread" but also refers to the action of one who operates a wine press (see Isaiah 63:2). Rashi (to Deut. 33:29) explains that the verb dorech also implies the defeat and humbling of one's foes by "stepping on them". Based on this, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935-2017) explains that the word derech denotes the path of life, which is rife with trials and tribulations. Man is expected to quash and vanquish those ordeals by overcoming them, in order to successfully continue onwards. Only by consistently living up to that expectation can man defeat these impediments and truly progress in his path of life. Remember: before we had Waze to keep us on the right path, we had Mussar.

To be continued…

  • L'iluy Nishmat my mother Bracha bat R' Dovid and my grandmother Shprintza bat R' Meir

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