My mother, a native Yiddish speaker, would repeatedly emphasize: “Just be a mensch!” My siblings and I understood that she did not expect perfection, but rather that we behave as good people despite inconvenience or adversity. For my mother, being a mensch was much more than being well behaved. A mensch would include the shy classmate during recess activity, would share a lunch treat with a friend, and would stand up to a bully to defend a victim. Being a mensch required compassion, generosity and heroism, even if only on a small scale. And there was no greater chastisement than being told, “That was not menschlich,” the way of a good person.
The word mensch derives from early German, and by extension Yiddish, and literally means “a man” or in a more contemporary, inclusive usage, “a person.” “Be a man” in American culture is often identified with toughness: a willingness to fight or buck up so as not to show softness, such as by crying. On the flip side, saying that a person is “only human” is used to forgive a failing, such as succumbing to an unworthy temptation. There is no exact English equivalent of the noun mensch, although adding an “e” to human creates an adjective that comes close. Mensch is even broader than humane, conveying in Yiddish a larger range of qualities of uprightness. On an even higher level is a tzaddik, denoting saintly selflessness, which was not an expectation of a normal person. Rather, each person was expected as a mensch to at least embody trustworthiness, humility, and kindness.
The positive nature of “being human” begins with the Bible. People are uniquely “created in the image of G-d” (Genesis 1:27). We possess the breath of G-d (Genesis 2:7). These Divine qualities convey an elevated human essence. When King David on his death bed blessed his son, Solomon, he charged him to “become a man”:
“I am going the way all things go (to die), and you should strengthen yourself and become a man” (II Kings 2:2).
Hillel, the influential first-century teacher of Israel, equated the charge “Be a man” with core strength and uprightness:
“Where there are no people, try hard to be a person” (Pirkei Avot 2:6).
Hillel’s quote conveys that we should always do what is right regardless of how others behave or whether anyone is watching. The verb “try hard” (hishtadel) suggests an active process, rather than a fixed identity. After all, we know that we may fall short at times of the goal of being our best. Fear or self-interest may skew our choice of action and move us toward rationalized acceptance of bad behavior. Compulsive desire may also obscure right and wrong. It is far from a given that we will always act nobly. Menschlichkeit is an aspiration, though normative heroic behaviors are genuinely attainable.
Growth in our goodness emerges from awareness of whom we admire and why? And then seeking to emulate their admirable acts. Conversations with friends about the attributes of goodness, especially the charge of the prophet Micah (6:8)- “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your G-d”- enable us to become more aware of how these attributes are present in our lives. I have recently prepared a booklet entitled, “To Be a Mensch: Character-Making Through Five Small-Group Conversations.” You will find the material on our synagogue website (www.cbi18.org) or contact my office to receive a printed booklet for you and your friends (firstname.lastname@example.org).
RABBI Elie SpiTz is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel of Tustin.