Part 2: Thou Shall Be a Mensch!



In the previous letter of this series, we began to discuss the Yiddish compliment “mentsh” – a true human being, and we mentioned the following reason as to why this term is a compliment: A human being is created in the Divine image; thus, a mensch strives to develop this spiritual potential by emulating the loving, caring, and righteous Divine attributes. We also mentioned that there is a mitzvah to become a mensch through emulating these Divine attributes, as it is written: “And you shall go in His ways” (Deuteronomy 28:9).


In this letter, we will discuss a message from the Prophet Micah regarding the importance of becoming a “mensch” in the Land of Zion. In this message, Micah uses the Hebrew word “adam” – a term which can refer to the human being and/or humankind. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the term “adam” has several meanings, and they all refer to the exalted purpose of the human being. For example, Rabbi Hirsch states that “adam” is related to the Hebrew word, “domeh” – resemble. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the relationship of these two words is to remind us of the following truth:


“The purpose of the human being is to be a likeness of God, but he is to effect this likeness through his own free and dynamic power.” (Rabbi Hirsch’s commentary to Genesis 1:26)


Dear Friends,


During the era of the First Temple, many of our people began to feel that it was not necessary to fulfill most of the mitzvos of the Torah, as long as they fulfilled the mitzvos to bring offerings to the Temple. Some of the people even considered the idea of adopting the pagan practice of sacrificing one’s children.

The Prophet Micah cites the following questions they would ask as examples of their attitude:


“With what shall I approach Hashem, humble myself before God on high? Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings, with calves in their first year? Will Hashem be appeased by thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of streams of oil? Shall I give over my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my belly for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:6,7)   


In response to this attitude of the people, the Prophet Micah reminds them that if they truly wish to get close to Hashem, they must be faithful to the following underlying principles of the Torah’s path of mitzvos:


“He has told you O adam, what is good, and what Hashem seeks from you: only to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)


Why does the Prophet Micah address our people as, “adam”? I found the following answer in the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on the above verse:


“The whole great content of the Torah, the Law of God, is given in the word adam. Here it is used not merely vocatively, as a term of address; it also expresses the goal and purport of God’s Will which is contained in the word of His Torah. Realization of the ideal of humanity, perfection of the human being is thereby presented as the result of carrying out the dictates of the Torah.”


Rabbi Hirsch’s commentary reveals that we are addressed as “adam” in order to remind us that the goal of the Torah’s path of mitzvos is to develop ideal human beings – menschen – in the Land of Zion.


As we discussed, the human being who was created in the Divine image – the “mensch” – was created at the site of the Temple in Zion. If we, the People of Zion, develop our potential to become “menchen” through emulating the Divine ways, we can then inspire all human beings to follow our example. They will them come to Zion to learn about the Divine ways. In the previous letter, we cited the prophecy of Isaiah regarding this universal pilgrimage (Isaiah 2:1-3), and the following is a similar prophecy from the Prophet Micah:


“It will be in the end of days that the mountain of the Temple of Hashem will be firmly established as the most prominent of the mountains, and it will be exalted above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. Many nations will go and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the Mountain of Hashem and 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 shall go forth Torah, and the Word of Hashem from Jerusalem.” (Micah 4:1,2)


The above passage refers to the nations of the earth. According to the Torah, there are seventy primary nations which are the roots of the diverse national groups and cultures which we have today. This figure is based on the number of the descendants of Noah which are listed in the Book of Genesis, after the story of the great flood. Seventy names are recorded, and at the end of the section it states, “These are the families of Noah’s descendants, according to their generations, by their nations; and from these the nations were separated on the earth after the flood” (Genesis 10:32). The Midrash therefore teaches that seventy nations emerged from Noah (Numbers Rabbah 14:12).


There is a special mitzvah that we are to fulfill in the Temple of Zion which instills in our consciousness a universal concern for the well-being of the seventy nations. It is the mitzvah to bring seventy bull-offerings to the Temple during the seven days of the Festival of Succos (Numbers 29:12-34). There are 13 bull-offerings on the first day of the Festival, 12 on the second day, eleven on the third day, ten on the fourth day, nine on the fifth day, eight on the sixth day, and seven on the seventh day – totaling seventy (ibid). The Talmud explains that these offerings are on behalf of the seventy primary nations of the world (Succos 55b). In his commentary on the Talmud, Rashi explains that the purpose of these offerings is to seek atonement on behalf of the seventy nations so that they will merit rain during the coming year. Rashi, in his commentary on the biblical passage about these seventy offerings, mentions that these seventy offerings protected the seventy nations from afflictions; however, he adds the following teaching which seems to contradict the spirit of his commentary on the Talmud’s reference to the seventy offerings:


“The bulls of the Festival are seventy, corresponding to the seventy nations, and they progressively decrease in number (as each day, fewer bulls are offered than the day before). This alludes to their destruction (the eventual destruction of the nations).


In his commentary on the Talmud, Rashi indicates that the purpose of the seventy offerings is to preserve the seventy nations, and in his commentary on the biblical text, Rashi indicates that the decreasing number of offerings on each day alludes to the eventual destruction of the seventy nations. How do we understand this contradiction? In addition, Rashi’s teaching regarding the destruction of the nations seems to contradict all the biblical prophecies which describe the redemption of the nations during the messianic age! I discussed this question with my rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Feldman; moreover, this question is discussed in a book on Succos, Zman Simchaseinu, written by Rabbi David Cohen of the Chevron Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The following resolution was inspired by the insights cited by Rav Feldman and Rav Cohen:


On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we chanted the following prayer regarding world unity: “Let them all become one society to do Your will wholeheartedly.” The Divine goal for human history is “one” society dedicated to serving the unifying and life-giving Divine purpose; thus, the daily decrease in the number of bull offerings alludes to the eventual elimination of seventy arrogant and separate nation-states that currently oppose each other and that refuse to serve the unifying and life-giving Divine purpose. Humanity will enter a new stage of history when there will be one society composed of diverse national groups that will be aligned with Israel in the service of the Unifying One. The Prophet Zephaniah therefore proclaimed the following Divine message:


“For then I will cause the peoples to speak a purified language, so that they all will proclaim the Name of Hashem, to serve Him with a united resolve” (Zephaniah 3:9).


As the Prophets revealed, the pilgrims from the peoples will also come to Zion to learn of the Divine ways which they are to emulate; thus, all human beings will become menschen!


Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,

And a Chag Samayach – A Joyous Festival,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Insights:


1. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a related teaching in his commentary on Psalm 67:5. He writes: “At present, the nations, each an isolated unit to itself, stand against each other, armed to the teeth. But these differences will come to an end when the one God will one day reign supreme over them all.”


In his commentary on Psalm 24:6, Rabbi Hirsch writes: “Each nation may still retain its own characteristics and peculiarities, but must always use them and the way of life based upon them only in conformity with the supreme Divine moral law. It is this spiritual and moral subordination to the One God and to His law that unites all the diverse cultures and national entities of the world into one harmonious whole.”

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