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How to be a Mentsch!*

Years ago, I read a description of Judaism as a two-part system: yiddishkeit (Jewishness) and mentschlichkeit (humanitarianism). Yiddishkeit, of course, refers to all our particular Jewish activities like keeping Shabbat, Purim, and Passover, et al. Mentschlichkeit refers to Judaism’s ethical system and is extensively addressed in the Torah and throughout Jewish literature. In the modern period of Jewish history, particularly in the Diaspora as the Zionist movement sought to recreate a specifically modern Jewish nation-state, many non-religious Jews emphasized mentschlichkeit over yiddishkeit.

In its most extreme form, advocates of mentschlichkeit have argued that to be a good Jew, all one has to do is be a mentsch and that yiddishkeit is dispensable. While I agree that mentschlichkeit has primacy over yiddishkeit (or, argued ethically, “what’s the point of keeping the ritual mitzvot if you are a scoundrel?”), yiddishkeit still has its place, is inherently enjoyable and serves to unite the Jews as a people. Thus, it is no surprise to me that a favorite Preschool song at KI is simply “Be a Mentsch!” Our Preschool even has a Mentsch Bench in the Preschool hallway as a gathering spot for charitable donations and other forms of Tzedakah.

The basis of mentschlichkeit in Judaism is to be found in this week’s Torah portion (Ki Tisa). In Exodus 34, we read the 13 Attributes of God. The Attributes are revealed to Moses as he awaits the second giving of the Torah (the first tablets were smashed). The passage was deemed so important by the rabbis that it is read in the synagogue on festivals and major holidays as the Torah is taken from the Ark. Basically, the idea behind the attributes is that we should strive to be as godly in our behavior as possible.

Here is a list of the 13 Attributes:

  1. יְהוָהYHVH: compassion before a person sins;
  2. יְהוָהYHVH: compassion after a person has sinned;
  3. אֵלEl: mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need;
  4. רַחוּםRaum: merciful, that humankind may not be distressed;
  5. וְחַנּוּןVeanun: and gracious if humankind is already in distress;
  6. אַפַּיִםאֶרֶךְ Erekh appayim: slow to anger;
  7. וְרַב חֶסֶד VeRav esed: and plenteous in kindness;
  8. וֶאֱמֶתVeEmet: and truth;
  9. לָאֲלָפִים נֹצֵר חֶסֶד Notzer esed laalafim: keeping kindness unto thousands;
  10. נֹשֵׂא עָוֹןNoseh avon: forgiving iniquity;
  11. וָפֶשַׁעVaFeshah: and transgression;
  12. וְחַטָּאָהVeata’ah: and sin;
  13. וְנַקֵּהVeNakeh: and pardoning.

For me, the key term in this list is Hesed or Kindness. As you know, I recently published a slim book of poetry called “The Kindness Response.” It was, in part, inspired by the 13 Attributes and by a verse from the Talmud, which states that “the highest form of wisdom is kindness” (B’rachot 17a). Kindness includes compassion, mercy, graciousness and the ability to be “slow to anger” which, as we know, is no easy feat for many of us. Kindness, Hesed, in my opinion, should be the primary basis of Jewish education followed by a full dose of yiddishkeit and pride in being Jewish. And what is there to be more proud of than belonging to a family and a culture which values kindness, compassion and humanitarianism among its highest priorities for us as human beings!

One obstacle or stumbling block to living a life of Hesed or kindness is the inability to forgive. Look at the above list, forgiveness informs most of the commandments to be kind as well as the explicit message of Attributes 9-13. But what does it mean to forgive iniquity, transgression and sin? Forgiveness, tradition has taught us, has multiple components including excusing bad behavior, pardoning, reconciling and even forgetting offenses committed against us. Forgiveness is rarely easy and maybe that is why our tradition includes the Day of Atonement when we annually seek forgiveness for our own actions and inactions before God, even before we seek forgiveness from other people.

Sometimes it seems impossible to forgive. All of us have been either grievously injured, hurt or insulted by another person. Some of us have experienced difficult divorces. Others have seen families split apart with no forgiveness for years and sometimes forever. The bearing of grudges, justified indignation and sometimes-just stubbornness are formidable realities in our emotional life. Imagine then the task of Holocaust survivors and their descendants in any attempt to forgive the Nazis as well as families victimized by terrorism and homicidal crimes. I guess you could even say that “to be kind is human but to forgive is divine.”

Personally, I do not believe that every transgression is forgivable. Sometimes the hurt and injury are simply too great. Nazism can never be forgiven for what it did during the Holocaust. But that does not preclude us from expanding our ability to forgive in other, less extreme situations. In most of our lives, there is always little room to try to be a kinder, gentler, more tolerant human being. That is why we teach 2 year olds to sing, “Be a Mentsch!” as well as to say, “I’m sorry.” It is a fundamental and beautiful part of Judaism to be kind and forgiving. Ultimately, those values also help pave the way to embrace yiddishkeit, the Jewish way of celebrating Jewishness and mentschlichkeit!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.

*Mentsch is Yiddish, Mensch is German