It is usually taken to mean, nowadays, that one must know how to be polite and behave with respect in order to learn Torah.
When we walk, we pave the road that comes before us. It is very, very important for us to know how this is accomplished, because it is accomplished whether we are aware of it or not. If one is not aware of how one is paving their path and does so mindlessly, or carelessly, or without an attitude of deep respect and awe; one will most certainly encounter unpleasant surprises in the world. They that person will say: Why did this "befall" me?! How cruel life is! How unpredictable!
So let us know how to walk through life so that unpredictable surprises are obviated before they occur.
The pupils of the eyes are the Gates of Heaven. They dilate and contract no only in response to how much light is present. The pupils will dilate when we see something that is very beautiful to us – as when someone sees someone to whom they are very attracted.
Light is not "out there" it is produced by our Consciousness. We live in the light of our Consciousness. That is the light in which we see everything and the level of our Consciousness will determine the quality and quantity of the light we see – how strong it is, how penetrating it is, how meaningful the colors and so on.
It is, therefore, very important that we gently discipline our Hearts, over time, to genuinely love beautiful and loving things. That way, our Mind will generate beautiful images and our Hearts will beat with love. In that way, our pupils will dilate (the Gates of Heaven will open) when we imagine the beautiful and contract (the gates of Heaven will close) if we imagine something unlovely.
As we walk, we breathe. We also create sounds. Our Hearts beat. Our blood flows. The biological processes continue and, also, we step down on the Earth and that creates vibrations in the entire Earth – and beyond.
Eventually, we arrive at a level of self-awareness and self-discipline whereupon we are able to control all of these processes at will.
Until then, it is very important for us to know that the light that proceeds from our Consciousness and exists through the pupils of the eyes interacts with the vapor of our breath and the sound waves we are producing and creates the reality that we encounter. Sound and light are one and the same. (Yes, I know the physicists have a different, I should say equivocal and unclear, version of how light work and sound and what their origins are, but they are incorrect). If we are walking without someone else, we likely speak with them. The quality of the conversation will also determine the shapes and forms that the light, sound and vapor issuing from us will take.
When we touch that which has been formed by the light, sounds and vapors exuding from us, we imprint on them the final seal of what characteristics they will take. It is absolutely crucial that we step gently on the Earth and touch objects with love. How much more important is it that we touch one another with love?
Though light and sound and vapor are very fine, the objects and events they form can be hard and obdurate and so it is very important that we do not create harsh and demanding realities. We have to know that it is incumbent upon us to obviate ugly vagaries in life at the source – our own thoughts, feelings, words and deeds as we walk on the path of life.
These are the truths of Creation that we must know before we attempt to learn Torah – all of us, Jew and Gentile alike. If we are not already in a state of exquisite awareness of the fact that we are creating our own realities, whether we are aware of it or not, whatever our intentions may be, and knowing, at the very least, generally how we do it, then we will not be in a the proper place of sacred awe required to understand Torah properly.
Those who are in the place required to understand Torah (Terra) correctly and to teach Torah (Talmud Torah => giving birth to Terra) walk in Peace, breathe in Peace, and tread upon the Earth with Love and Sacred Awe because they are exquisitely aware of the fact that they are walking on the dust of our Holy Mothers and Fathers who walk before us - always.
Most Jews have lost this knowledge. That is why they think that derekh eretz is just "being a mensch" and that is why most Jews think that Yisra'El is a geographic locus, or, God help us!, a place that can be made into a state. That is why most Jews can only see the high moral mountains of Torah, but cannot contend with the valleys and with the boulders.
The Native and Aboriginal Peoples are much more aware of this than Western culture.
The do not do things haphazardly. They do not engage in meaningless activity. Everything they do is mindful and deliberate.
It is worthwhile to learn how to relate to the creation with sacred awe from them. It is worthwhile to experience how to move into the sacred places from them. After that, one may learn Torah properly.
Rabbi Samson Rapha'El Hirsh speaks of Torah Im Derekh Eretz - Torah *with* Derekh Eretz. He understood. He found The Land.