Thou Shall Be a Mensch!



The term “mensch” – pronounced “mentsh” – is a Yiddish compliment which has been adopted by many English speakers, and it even appears in some English dictionaries. This Yiddish compliment refers to a true human being – someone who is caring, giving, and does the right thing. An example of how this Yiddish compliment is used in modern English can be found in the following quote from a CBS news story about Aaron Feuerstein, a seventy-year old Torah-observant Jewish businessman, who received international acclaim for preserving the jobs of his employees after a fire destroyed his textile factory, Malden Mills, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, United States:


“He kept his promises. Workers picked up their checks for months. In all, he paid out $25 million and became known as the Mensch of Malden Mills – a businessman who seemed to care more about his workers than about his net worth.”  (CBS News, July 6, 2003 – The program was titled, “The Mensch of Malden Mills.”)


In this letter, we shall discuss why Jewish tradition views this term as a compliment, and we shall also discuss the relationship of this compliment to the spiritual and universal significance of Zion.


Dear Friends,


According to our tradition, one of the highest compliments one can give someone is to describe him or her as a true human being – a mensch. The following teaching of the Chofetz Chaim can help us to understand why this term is actually a compliment:


“Scripture records (Genesis 1:27) that, ‘God created the human being in His image.’ The commentators take the statement to refer to His attributes. He gave the human soul the capacity to emulate the attributes of Hashem, the Blessed One – to do good and act with loving-kindness with others; moreover, it is written in Scriptures (Psalm 145:9), ‘Hashem is good to all and His compassion is on all His works,’ and it also states (Psalm 136:25), ‘He gives food to all flesh for His loving-kindness is eternal.’ ” (Loving Loving-kindness – Part 2)


True human beings – “menschen” – are those people who are developing their human potential to emulate the loving and caring Divine attributes. In fact, there is a mitzvah – Divine mandate – to become a mensch through emulating these Divine attributes. A source for this mitzvah is found in the words, “And you shall go in His ways” (Deuteronomy 28:9).


Maimonides discusses this mitzvah in his “Book of Mitzvos” (#8), and he cites the following teaching of our sages:


“Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, is called Compassionate, so should you be compassionate; just as He is called Gracious, so should you be gracious; just as He is called Righteous, so should you be righteous; just as He is called Chasid – devoted to acts of love – so should you be a chasid.” (Sifri on Deuteronomy 11:22)


When the Torah discusses the life of our forefather, Avraham, it focuses on the ways he emulated the Divine compassion, righteousness, and loving-kindness. He therefore became a true human being. In this spirit, Rabbi Mendel Kaplan, a noted 20th century sage and educator, conveyed to his students the following message about Avraham’s greatness:


“He was simply a mentsch. He was what a person is supposed to be.” (Reb Mendel and his Wisdom" by Yisroel Greenwald)


I discovered a related teaching about the greatness of Avraham in the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni on the Book of Joshua. The Midrash discusses the following phrase regarding the city of Hebron, where Avraham lived for many years:


“The name of Hebron was formerly Kiriath-arba, who was the biggest human being” among the Anakim” (Joshua 14:15).


According to the simple meaning of the verse, Hebron was formerly called Kiriath-arba, as it was named after a man named “Arba” who was the “biggest human being” among the Anakim – a people of giants. The Midrash reveals the following deeper meaning of this verse: Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel says in the name of Rabbi Yehudah Ben Lakish that the phrase “biggest human being” alludes to Avraham. He was the “biggest human being” in the spiritual sense, and Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel concludes by mentioning that we, his descendants, will have great merit when we emulate Avraham’s ways by doing acts of “righteousness and loving-kindness.”


The Chofetz Chaim taught that we can all become menschen through emulating the Divine compassion, righteousness, and loving-kindness – not only through our deeds, but also through our speech. And as we discussed in a previous letter, he became a model of what he preached. One of the ways in which he achieved this goal was to set aside a period each day for evaluating his behavior. In addition to this period of inner contemplation, he also kept a journal in which he entered his “spiritual accounts” every day, so that he would be able to review his progress. (“The Chafetz Chaim” by Rabbi Moses M. Yoshor – ArtScroll Publications)


During the long life of the Chofetz Chaim (1839-1933), the technological progress of humankind caused a growing number of people to adopt secular ideologies which denied the existence of God and which therefore viewed the human being as the owner and sovereign of the world. A granddaughter of the Chofetz Chaim was greatly influenced by these secular ideologies, and she abandoned the path of Torah. In her old age, she was able to leave Russia and come to Israel. Her cousin, Rabbi Hillel Zaks – a grandson of the Chofetz Chaim – welcomed her and with him was Rabbi Shimshon Pinkus. At the national convention of Agudath Israel of America in November, 2,000, Rabbi Pinkus shared with the audience the following story about that meeting:



About fifteen years ago, I met a granddaughter of the Chofetz Chaim who had recently come to Be’er Sheva from Russia. This elderly woman was completely irreligious. When I accompanied Rabbi Hillel Zaks, who is a grandson of the Chofetz Chaim, to visit his cousin, I heard the following story from this woman:

She told us that when she was eighteen years old, she had left home and went to study in a university. (I must add parenthetically that we cannot imagine the upheavals that were taking place in those tumultuous times.) She told us, “I went to my Zaide (grandfather) and told him, ‘Zaide, why are you sitting in the dark? Come out into the world of light, and feast your eyes on the beginnings of the revolution of technology! It’s a beautiful world out there!’ ”

“My grandfather pointed to an airplane flying by, and told me, ‘You see those airplanes? During World War I, they used to throw a box of dynamite out of the window of a plane to bring destruction on humanity below. Someday they are going to reach the moon. And those bombs? They are going to create bombs that will be able to destroy the whole world. That is what they make. But we make mentschen….’ ” (Jewish Observer, Sivan, 5761-May, 2001)


According to our tradition, the human being who was created in the Divine image – the “mensch” – was created at the site of the Temple in Zion. This tradition is cited by Maimonides in his famous code of halacha, Mishneh Torah, where he states that the human being was created at the site of the altar of the Temple on Mount Moriah (Beis Habechirah 2:2). The tradition that the human being was created at the site of the Temple is cited in Midrash Genesis Rabbah (14:8), and in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, at the beginning of Chapter 12.
 At the dawn of the messianic age, all human beings will desire to develop their potential to become menschen. They will therefore journey to the site of Zion’s Temple – the sacred place where the human being was created – in order to study and follow the Divine ways, as it is written:  


  “It will happen in the end of days: The Mountain of the Temple of Hashem will be firmly established as the head of the mountains, and it will be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it. Many peoples will go and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the Mountain of Hashem, to the Temple of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths.’ For from Zion will go forth Torah, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:2,3)


The Prophet adds that before humankind will come to Zion to study and follow the ways of Hashem, the arrogance of humankind will be removed:


“Humankind’s haughtiness will be humbled and men’s arrogance will be brought down; and Hashem alone will be exalted on that day.” (Ibid 2:17)


Humankind will then acknowledge that Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, is the Sovereign of the world. This is why we chant the following words in the Shemoneh Esrei prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:


“Then You, Hashem, will reign alone over all Your works, on Mount Zion, resting place of Your glory, and in Jerusalem, your holy city; as it is written in Your holy writings: ‘Hashem shall reign forever – your God, O Zion – from generation to generation, Halleluyah!’ (Psalm 146:10).”


May we be blessed with a good and elevating Shabbos.

And may we be sealed on Yom Kippur in the Book of Life.

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)

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