On being a mentsch when what we say and do has consequences
COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Over the years, these columns have often touched on core values and qualities that are shared among people of goodwill across religious and cultural boundaries. One of our coffee companions has encapsulated those values and qualities in just one word: Mentsch.
Rabbi Shaul Osadchey, of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Calgary, is passionate about this Yiddish word (also spelled mensch). Related to the German word Mensch, it describes “a human being who wrestles with life’s challenges” and develops “a reputation for moral excellence and social rectitude,” he says. “A person who is a mentsch is a decent and considerate individual.”
Simply put, mentsch refers to “the type of person we hope our children will become.”
Rabbi Shaul brought the word up at a recent meeting of the Calgary Council of Christians and Jews, of which he’s president and on which I sit. It was part of a discussion of whether religion belongs in public life.
I had argued that, certainly, at least the lived-out religious values of justice, mercy, humility and love dare not be kept locked up behind church and synagogue doors. Rabbi Shaul responded with the following memory:
Back in 2012, he’d celebrated the arrival of Judaism’s holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), with a sermon on the importance of becoming a mentsch.
“Central to the meaning of Yom Kippur is that what we do and what we say has consequences,” he began.
Striving for the right consequences – “striving to become a mentsch” – begins with embracing humility. “One cannot fully appreciate the Godliness that permeates all life if one does not first establish a proper perspective about one’s own life.”
This is about owning up to one’s imperfections, he said. “The mentsch does not accept his/her faults complacently with folded hands waiting for God’s forgiveness. Instead, moral striving characterizes the goals of the mentsch who knows that it is through his/her own effort that personal righteousness and building a righteous society can occur. The act of struggling is therefore essential for the refinement of one’s character.”
It’s about discerning what is from what ought to be. “Each of us has the capacity to make such distinctions because we have a soul in which a spark of the Divine resides. Some would call it our conscience or that inner voice that tells us what is right and what is wrong. The mentsch is a person who can listen intently to that inner voice and allow it to penetrate his/her character and actions.”
That very much involves discerning between the transitory and the enduring. And to inform them in that discernment, “the mentsch looks into Jewish tradition for the cornerstone of a fulfilled and meaningful life.”
In this regard, there are three blessings the Jewish community asks God to bestow upon every newborn child, he said: Torah, marriage and good deeds.
“The values and teachings of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) represent the curbs on the streets of life’s journey. They direct us forward and alert us when we are in danger of leaving the road.”
The blessing of marriage, symbolized in the wedding canopy, includes both “a consecrated marriage and good and wholesome relationships with others. Respect, dignity, and consideration are the gifts a mentsch brings to people.”
This implies gentle honesty, not participating in gossip, seeking out the good in others, and being a peacemaker. “In so doing, the mentsch repairs a broken world and brings Godliness into it.”
Finally, the mentsch pursues good deeds. “The combined effect of numerous acts of loving-kindness can become a powerful force in bringing goodness and joy into an otherwise stressful and hostile world.”
Well, I can see how such a blessing and pursuit of becoming a mentsch most definitely ought never to be hidden behind synagogue doors. Yes, such a mentsch can indeed bring goodness and joy into the too-often stressful and hostile affairs of everyday public life.
In fact, it was to provide mentorship in such a lifestyle that Rabbi Shaul concluded his sermon by announcing the creation of a Mentsch Laureate position at his synagogue, so that his congregation could benefit from the wisdom of acknowledged mentschen among them.
“I think it is so important that we strive to become mentschen,” he said, “so that we become kinder to our family and friends, that we learn better how to listen to the pain of others, and that we more constructively use our hands, more than our mouths, to help and to heal, and to direct our resources and commitments to building a strong community.”
Amen to that, Rabbi Shaul! Thank you.
© 2014 Warren Harbeck